Do the banged-up, low-scoring Wild have any chance against the high-flying, Western Conference champion Stars?
SERIES STARTS: Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET, in Dallas.
HOW THEY WIN:
STARS: The Stars are offense incarnate. They lead the NHL in goals per game, generate the third-most shots on goal per game and rank second in score-adjusted Corsi For per 60 minutes.
The juggernaut duo of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin is a big reason for that. Benn is the game’s best power forward, Seguin one of its top scorers. Even when coach Lindy Ruff separates them now and then, it’s always just a matter of time before they’re reunited. These Stars have plenty of secondary scoring sources, too. Jason Spezza is a solid second-line center and power play specialist. John Klingberg, an elite puck-moving defenseman with a penchant for clutch goals, had a breakout year. The Stars are more comfortable in 5-4 track meets than 2-1 nail biters.
WILD: The Wild, like so many Central Division teams, are deep, especially at forward. They ice a dangerous top nine every night, with a solid trio of centers in Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund and the resurgent Erik Haula. Power forward Charlie Coyle finally seems to be delivering on his promise, topping the 20-goal mark for the first time.
The Wild have the ultimate workhorse, Ryan Suter, leading their blueline, and he has a fleet-footed group of young defensemen supporting him, including Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin and big shooter Mathew Dumba. Devan Dubnyk has also played well enough in goal to show his breakout 2014-15 wasn’t a fluke. The Wild have no glaring hole at any position, but there are cracks that keep them from being a true contender.
HOW THEY LOSE:
STARS: Dallas shored up its blueline by signing Johnny Oduya in the summer and trading for Kris Russell at the Feb. 29 deadline, but this team is still below average defensively, allowing the most goals per game among playoff hopeful teams. Dallas has good mobility among its top four defensemen but lacks a truly nasty customer.
GM Jim Nill brought in Antti Niemi to share goaltending duties with Kari Lehtonen and keep both men fresh. While the $10.4-million tandem has been adequate, neither has emerged as a clear No. 1. On six of the past seven Stanley Cup champions, one goalie has earned all 16 victories. The 1A-1B approach doesn’t work in crunch time. Winning teams rely on one guy.
Aside from Koivu, Minnesota’s veteran forwards have been disappointments. Zach Parise, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville have all posted pedestrian offensive numbers, and now Parise and Vanek are out indefinitely. It’s a concern going forward since so many of the Wild’s key forwards are 30 or older. The young ones, from Granlund to Nino Niederreiter to Jason Zucker, are effective but won’t become superstars at any point. The Wild are weak on special teams. Their penalty kill efficiency sits near the bottom of the NHL, and their power play is average. They are a bad possession team, ranking among a bunch of non-playoff qualifiers. Their Corsi numbers did not improve at all once John Torchetti took over from Mike Yeo as coach in February. The Wild continue to give up more shot attempts than they generate.
STARS: How far can PATRICK SHARP’S experience take Dallas? He’s 34 and has slowed down. In his three Stanley Cup-winning post-seasons with Chicago – 2010, 2013 and 2015 – he scored 11, 10 and five goals. He’s not quite the player he was before. A lower-body injury slowed him in March, too. Still, when on the ice, Sharp has shown he’s not done as an effective NHLer. He and fellow former Blackhawk Oduya have played in many more big games than any other skaters on Dallas’ roster and can calm the dressing room if jitters kick in.
WILD: John Torchetti would be smart to play NINO NIEDERREITER a bunch. ‘El Nino’ had three goals in the 2014 playoffs and four more in 2015. Three of his seven post-season goals were game winners. On a terrible possession team, his score-adjusted Corsi mark of 55.6 put him 10.3 percent above his teammates, giving him the best relative Corsi number in the NHL, even ahead of Selke Trophy favorite Patrice Bergeron. Pound for pound, Niederreiter has been as good a possession player as anyone in the league.
KEY MATCHUP by Dom Luszczyszyn
Last year’s Art Ross champion and this season’s runner-up will have his work cut out for him against Minnesota. Jamie Benn will probably see a lot of Ryan Suter in Round 1 and that’ll be a tough challenge. Suter is one of the league’s best D-men and it shows from his ability to influence shots at both ends of the rink. Benn is no slouch there either – and he’s had the edge whenever the two have squared off over the last five years – but Suter was just a little better this season. The dynamic duo of Benn and Tyler Seguin will be tough to handle, but Suter and his partner Jared Spurgeon will be up for the task. Handling the rest of Dallas’ deep offence is another question.
THN’s pick: STARS.