When the Anaheim Ducks defeated the Los Angeles 4-3 in the shootout on Saturday night, those two points sealed their place as the top team in the Western Conference.
That victory also cemented the first of the round one matchups in the West: the #1 seeded Ducks versus the #8 seeded Dallas Stars.
While the Ducks have been strong all season, the Stars fought and clawed their way through the unforgiving West and were finally rewarded for all of their hard work, earning the last playoff spot in the conference after their 81st game, a 3-0 victory over the St. Louis Blues.
“I’m proud of the guys. I am happy for the guys. They‘ve put a lot of work in,” said general manager Jim Nill, as quoted by Mark Stepneski on the team’s official site. “It’s the same with the coaching staff. It’s been a combination of the coaching staff getting the players to buy into the way they wanted them to play, and the players buying into that and the hard work they’ve put into it. They got rewarded and they deserved to be rewarded.”
While the 1-vs-8 matchup usually goes in favour of the higher-ranked team, the Stars match up well against the Ducks, giving this particular series the potential to go right down to the wire.
Here are five of the top storylines to follow when the series begins:
Which team’s forward duo will have the most impact?
All season long the Dallas Stars were led offensively by the young, dynamic first line pair of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Seguin is currently 3rd in NHL scoring with 84 points, while Benn is 10th with 79. The next highest scorer on the team behind them? Alex Goligoski with 42 points.
It’s the same story over in Anaheim. They’re led by the NHL’s second-highest scorer in Ryan Getzlaf, who has 87 points, and his longtime wingman Corey Perry, who is 5th with 82. Nick Bonino is then next with 49 points.
Will one team’s 1-2 scoring punch out-duel the other?
Goaltending: Kari Lehtonen versus…?
For the Stars, there’s absolutely no question who will be backstopping them in the opening round. 30 year-old Kari Lehtonen is in the prime of his playing career and has been Dallas’ starting goaltender for the past four seasons. He’s excelled down the stretch for the Stars, with a 7-3 record and a .935 save percentage in his last 10 games. However, he also hasn’t played in the postseason since 2007, where he got lit up in two games playing for the Atlanta Thrashers. How will he handle his return to the playoffs?
Over in Anaheim the goaltending picture is a lot murkier. Jonas Hiller has played the brunt of the team’s games this season, but has looked shaky since returning from the Olympic break. Backup Frederik Andersen has better numbers this season, with a .923 save percentage compared to Hiller’s .911. Making things even more interesting is 20 year-old rookie John Gibson, who’s arguably the best goaltending prospect in hockey. He looked fantastic going 3-0 in three recent games for Anaheim, the only games so far of his NHL career, and there is talk that the Ducks could go with the hot hand for the start of the playoffs. Which netminder will get the call for Anaheim?
Stephane Robidas faces off against his old team
Defenceman Stephane Robidas played 704 games in a Dallas uniform and shed his blood, sweat and tears for the Stars during that span, often playing the most difficult minutes of any player on the team. However, at 37 years old, Robidas has never been to the Stanley Cup Finals. Hoping for one last chance to make it there, Robidas and the Stars mutually agreed for him to be moved at the trade deadline back in March
His destination? Anaheim. He has five points in 13 games since joining the Ducks.
Although Robidas still has a lot of love for the city of Dallas and his old team, once the playoffs begin all of that gets put on the back-burner.
“I have a lot of friends [in Dallas], a lot of good teammates,” Robidas said to NHL.com. “There’s guys that stayed at [my] house last year and this year. But it’s a game and it’s playoffs and I want to win. They want to win. At one point you put the friendship aside. Once the series is over, we’ll be friends again. That’s the way I see it.”
Do the advanced stats predict an upset?
The Anaheim Ducks have been one of the NHL’s top teams all season long, but for almost an equal amount of time the hockey analytics community has predicted that the Ducks would be unable to continue their high level of play. Their PDO, which is considered a measurement of luck, is a league-best 103.6, according to Extraskater.com. Their corsi-for percentage is also 15th in the league at 49.8%.
The Stars, meanwhile, have quietly been one of the league’s top possession teams this season. Their CF% is an impressive 51.3%, good for 11th in the NHL.
As Puck Daddy’s Harrison Mooney recently noted, possession numbers are often a measure of success. Will the better possession team in the series come out on top?
Can the Stars keep this pace going?
For the Dallas Stars, the playoffs essentially started three months ago, as a 1-8-1 slide to start January put team in an uphill climb to reach the postseason. Through sheer perseverance, determination and hard work, the Stars fought their way back to make it in.
However, the levels of intensity and pressure that the Stars have been under for so long seemed to have a negative effect on the team in some of the final games, including blowing a 2-0 lead in a 3-2 loss to the Florida Panthers, a game in which the Stars looked badly fatigued.
Head coach Lindy Ruff has demanded a lot from his players this year, building his team’s system around team speed and maximum effort at all times. This is Ruff’s first year behind the bench in Dallas so the system is new, and the Stars have a lot of young players on the roster, so it will be interesting to see if the squad already has the overall conditioning required to now make it through a grueling seven-game series and possibly beyond.
Derek Neumeier primarily covers the Dallas Stars, but also other various topics related to the sport of hockey. A Journalism graduate of Mount Royal University, Derek also writes for Defending Big D, and has done previous work with the Edmonton Oilers as a communications intern and Hockey Canada as a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @Derek_N_NHL