Let's put this out here: There is no better playoff season in the four major sports than the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs. For the next two months, the best of the league's best will embark on a thrill ride of pain and emotion, of heartbreaking goals, mysterious injuries, and mind-blowing saves, culminating in one team hoisting the best trophy in sports. If that's not enough to excite you, your Dallas Stars are back in playoffs for just the second time in the last eight years, punching their ticket with a 6-2 thrashing of the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks Tuesday night.
Diehard Stars fans will painfully recall Dallas' last foray into the NHL's second season in 2014. Trailing three games to two, but staked to a 4-2 lead in Game 6 with less than three minutes to play, the Stars' playoff dreams were doused in with a 5-4 overtime loss to the Anaheim Ducks. The following season was no better, as the Stars' high-powered offense couldn't make up for their poor defense, and they missed the playoffs completely.
Coming into this season, the best guess was that Dallas would possibly sneak back into the playoffs, but was still considered a step behind Western Conference powers like Anaheim, Chicago, the St. Louis Blues or the Los Angeles Kings. So much for best guesses; the Stars exploded out of the gate, winning a franchise best 19 of their first 24 games. The new year saw the Stars fall back to earth, but with eight games to play, they are locked in a dogfight with the Blues and Blackhawks for best record in the Central Division, and lead by two points. It's an exciting time to be a Stars fan, so start growing out that playoff beard, and we'll help you get into the spirit of playoff hockey.
I haven't been watching. Catch me up on this season.
After missing the playoffs last year, General Manager Jim Nill picked up defenseman Johnny Oduya and forward Patrick Sharp from the Blackhawks, hoping that their winning experience will rub off on the Stars. Nill also went the nontraditional route of signing a second starting goaltender in free agent Antti Niemi. The thinking was that by sharing the load with incumbent Kari Lehtonen, neither goalie would be worn down over a long season. Their individual numbers aren't great, but Niemi and Lehtonen are the only goaltending duo in the league with 20 wins each. The Stars also sport a bumper crop of young players who have had an impact on the team, and coach Lindy Ruff seems to know which buttons to push to keep his team humming along. Powered by Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, the Stars lead the league in scoring this year, and it's made for some exciting hockey to watch.
But isn't it harder to score in the playoffs?
The adage "defense win championships" certainly applies in hockey. Goals are historically hard to come by in the playoffs, where teams buckle down defensively and wait for the other team to make a mistake. Also, a hot goaltender can singlehandedly steal a series for his team. And not since the 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins has a team ranked first in offense gone on to win the Stanley Cup.
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So are the Stars doomed? Well, that Penguins team gave up a lot of goals, too. Coach Ruff admits that the Stars' ramped-up offensive style "is harder on our goaltenders," but as long as the team wins games, he's OK if the goaltending stats are less than impressive. And while the Stars have battled some inconsistency in scoring this year, they've found ways to pull themselves out of their slumps. The key for Dallas will be to remember that the offense will come naturally, but they can't cheat on their defensive responsibilities. If they push too hard for goals, this trip to the playoffs could be a short one.
Will the Stars be healthy come playoff time?
Healthy is a relative term this time of year, and Dallas has certainly been bitten by the injury bug of late. Defensemen John Klingberg, Jordie Benn, and Jason Demers have all missed significant time recently. Klingberg and Benn just returned to the lineup this week, while Demers is expected to be out until the first week of the playoffs. Up front, Tyler Seguin had his Achilles' tendon partially cut by an opponent's skate, and is out for the remainder of the regular season. After tweeting a graphic photo of his injury, Seguin said he "can't really picture missing Game 1" of the playoffs. Seguin had just one goal and two assists in Dallas' 2014 playoff run, and is anxious to show he can be a factor in the postseason.
How important is winning the division?
Although the players will say publicly that they hoped to simply make the playoffs this season, winning the division would be a huge boost to the Stars. The NHL's playoff format pits the division winner against the wild card teams in the opening round, while the second and third best teams in the division face each other. In the Central Division, finishing second means an extremely tough match-up with St. Louis or Chicago in the opening round. The best path to the Stanley Cup finals for Dallas would involve those two teams playing each other, hopefully in long series, while Dallas has a slightly easier path by playing the wildcard, then takes on the team left standing.
Alright, I'm excited! Who should I watch?
Superstars like Benn, Seguin and Jason Spezza will get a lot of attention from the opposing team, and rightfully so. You, knowledgeable fan, will keep an eye on Mattias Janmark. The 23-year old Swede was acquired in a trade late last season, and fully expected to play this season in Europe before making the jump to the Stars minor leagues next year. So set in this plan was Janmark that he arrived in training camp with just two weeks worth of clothes. However, he impressed the coaches with his skating and confidence with the puck, earned a spot on the opening night roster, then potted his first career goal on his first shot just 99 seconds into the game. Janmark has missed the last five games with an injury, but his flexibility to play either center or wing gives Ruff options in configuring his lines when he's in the lineup. Janmark and fellow young forwards like Brett Ritchie and Val Nichushkin could see favorable match-ups to provide some offensive spark.