Stars and Panthers: 2 Teams, 2 Roads, 1 Destination

How do you win the Stanley Cup?

That is hockey’s supreme question, and it’s asked and answered every year. Every year, the answer is slightly different, as the Cup passes from the previous winner to the new champion.

Typically, when one team wins hockey’s ultimate prize, the other 29 teams then attempt to emulate that team. They alter their styles of play and often, their rosters, in a desperate attempt to replicate the reigning champ’s success. Every year, 29 teams fail.

Ideally, NHL general managers, coaches and players could trek to a monastery high in the Canadian Rockies to ask the supreme question of a guru. When asked, the Hockey Lama (who, I’m sure, bears an uncanny resemblance to Toe Blake), would probably respond thusly:

To win the Stanley Cup, you must do your best, not your best impression of last year’s winner.

Though the Hockey Lama and his monastery don’t really exist, it’s clear the Dallas Stars and Florida Panthers have embraced that philosophy. Those two teams have vastly different approaches to the game, yet both are playoff-bound. A look at several key statistics illustrates perfectly the night-and-day contrast between the Stars and Panthers.

Goals and Shots

  • Goals For (per-game average): Dallas, 3.21 (1st in NHL)…Florida, 2.72 (10th).
  • Goals Against Average: Dallas, 2.87 (23rd)…Florida, 2.41 (7th).
  • Shots For: Dallas, 32.3 (3rd)…Florida, 28.3 (27th).
  • Shots Against: Dallas, 29.2 (Tied – 11th)…Florida, 29.5 (13th).
  • 5 on 5 Shooting Percentage: Dallas, 7.9 (T – 9th)…Florida, 8.6 (3rd).
  • 5 on 5 Save Percentage: Dallas, .914 (29th)…Florida, .929 (T – 11th).

The Stars score more goals than any other team, while the Panthers just make the top third of the NHL. The Stars score more partly because they shoot more than all but two teams. The Panthers shoot significantly less, but with greater accuracy, as their third-best shooting percentage indicates.

On the opposite side of the coin, Dallas ranks in the bottom third in goals against and Florida is among the league’s best. Though the teams allow similar numbers of shots on goal, the Panthers’ save percentage is significantly better. Quality of individual goalies aside, the difference in save percentages is related to scoring chances.

Scoring Chances

  • Scoring Chances For per 60: Dallas, 31.9 (1st)…Florida, 22.2 (29th).
  • Scoring Chances Against per 60: Dallas, 27.3 (21st)…Florida, 22.3 (T – 1st).
  • Total Scoring Chances per 60: Dallas, 59.2 (1st)…Florida, 44.4 (29th).
  • High-Danger Scoring Chances For per 60: Dallas, 13.0 (1st)…Florida, 9.1 (29th).
  • High-Danger Scoring Chances Against per 60: Dallas, 12.2 (29th)…Florida, 9.8 (3rd).
  • Total High-Danger Scoring Chances per 60: Dallas, 25.1 (1st)…Florida, 18.9 (28th).

Here, the contrast between the two teams is stark. The Stars are a high-event team, and their games feature more scoring chances (including the high-danger variety) than any other team’s. The Panthers, meanwhile, are the polar opposite, grinding opponents down defensively and waiting patiently, as cats do, to pounce on any mistake; a great many of their goals are scored off the rush.

Individual Game Structure

  • Win Percentage when Scoring First: Dallas, .730 (12th)…Florida, .756 (9th).
  • Win Percentage when Opponent Scores First: Dallas, .424 (4th)…Florida, .259 (20th).
  • 1st Period Goal Differential: Dallas, plus-3…Florida, plus-13.
  • 2nd Period Goal Differential:  Dallas, plus-7…Florida, plus-13.
  • 3rd Period Goal Differential:  Dallas, plus-15…Florida, even.

Because they generate fewer chances and score fewer goals, the first tally of the game is much more important to the Panthers than the Stars. Fast starts are critical for Florida, and that urgency is reflected in their goal differentials. The Cats have led after two periods 33 times this season; only Chicago (35) and Washington (34) have done so more often.

Meanwhile, Dallas’ high-risk, high-reward style of play results in wins more often than not, but also in more than a few bad nights: The Stars have allowed five or more goals in a game thirteen times this season. Also of note, their plus-15 third period goal differential includes a league-high 18 empty-net goals.

The Dallas Stars and Florida Panthers are wildly different teams, playing wildly different styles. Despite their differences, both are bound for the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Once the “second season” begins, anything can happen. In the two regular season meetings between the clubs, the Stars won, 4-2, in Sunrise and the Cats returned the favor with a 6-2 win in Dallas. Should these two teams meet in the Stanley Cup Final, which style of play will prevail? Ask the Hockey Lama, and he’ll say:

The Stanley Cup is not won by style; it is won by execution.