Can the Blues keep their momentum going after slaying the dragon of the Chicago Blackhawks? Or will Dallas’ powerhouse offense take over?
SERIES STARTS: Friday, 8 p.m. ET, in Dallas.
THE BLUES WIN IF… St. Louis conquered its white whale. Now what? It was a monumental accomplishment for the franchise to finally oust the Joel Quenneville-era Chicago Blackhawks after three straight seasons of first-round exits, all after the Blues had dominant regular seasons. The key now is to use the victory as a springboard into newfound glory instead of an emotional triumph that drains all their energy. The Blues must be wary of a letdown in Game 1 on the road. If they can shrug off the potential adrenaline dump, they’re in good shape.
The Blues didn’t score like Dallas did in the regular season but remain one of the league’s deepest, most versatile teams at forward. Vladimir Tarasenko’s game-breaking goal scoring ability provides a nice counterpunch to Dallas’ Jamie Benn and almost cancels out the superstar factor in a 1-for-1 trade while Tyler Seguin remains sidelined for the Stars. Small but tenacious Jaden Schwartz and Robby Fabbri were difference makers for the Blues in Round 1. Off-season acquisition Troy Brouwer brought size and, more importantly, the Stanley Cup-winning experience these Blues have lacked so badly during Ken Hitchcock’s years coaching the team. It was all too fitting for Brouwer to score the series-clinching goal against Chicago in Game 7. Powerhouse center David Backes also matches up tougher against the Stars’ forwards than any Minnesota Wild player did. St. Louis has decided advantages on the defensive side of the puck in this series. Blueliners Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester provide great mobility. A real site to behold in Round 1 was hulking rookie Colton Parayko, who has injected the team with much-needed brawn and terrifies opponents with his devastating slapshot. St. Louis does a better job suppressing shot attempts than Dallas.
Per war-on-ice.com, The Blues allowed a score-adjusted Corsi For per 60 of 50.5 this season, ninth in the NHL, whereas leakier Dallas sat 16th at 51.8. Both teams alternated goaltenders during the season, but the Blues stuck with one starter down the stretch in Brian Elliott, and they gave him plenty of leash in the first round against Chicago. The vote of confidence paid off. He delivered a .929 save percentage in the series and, after faltering in Games 5 and 6, stopped 31 of 33 shots in Game 7. The Stars are far less certain about their goaltending, having flip-flopped between Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi multiple times in the first round.
THE STARS WIN IF… Dallas’ well-rounded farm crop promises an exciting future and a balanced team over the next decade. Right now, though, the Stars are specialists. Preventing goals isn’t their forte. They do one thing better than every team in the league: score goals and generate chances. Even without Tyler Seguin, Dallas has the firepower to blitz opponents. Benn is one of the best five players on the planet and can dominate a game with his strength, smarts and athleticism. Jason Spezza is past his prime but hasn’t lost his silky scoring touch by any means, and the same is true for Patrick Sharp. John Klingberg and Alex Goligoski provide offense from the back end and help the team push the pace. The Stars hummed along at 22.1 percent on the power play this season and remained deadly in Round 1 at 21.1 percent. St. Louis is also a great team with the man advantage, but it’s encouraging to see Dallas still scoring sans-Seguin. He still has a chance to return from his Achilles injury at some point late in the series, too. Assuming Dallas doesn’t rush him back too quickly again, he’ll make the Stars’ offense that much deadlier. Interestingly, one of the reasons Chicago lost in the first round is one of the reasons Dallas offers a dangerous challenge for St. Louis: Johnny Oduya. The Hawks sorely missed his experience, poise under pressure and minutes-eating ability. Chicago’s D-corps cracked against the Blues, but Dallas is deeper in that regard, and it’s not like the Blues were a dominant offensive team in the regular season.
BLUES: It’s all about the rookies. The theory in the THN office is the likes of Fabbri, Parayko and Joel Edmundson helped push the Blues past their first-round jitters because the kids were untouched by the recent playoff failures. Their inexperience worked in their favor. Parayko is a unique specimen, 6-foot-6, 226 pounds and unafraid to mix it up with other teams’ most agitating forwards. He did it against Chicago’s Andrew Shaw and will be asked to do it again versus Dallas’ Antoine Roussel. The diminutive Fabbri blends grit with game-breaking offense and is playing with more confidence than ever. He’s a matchup problem for the Stars.
STARS: The Blues beat the Blackhawks, yep, but they didn’t beat
all the Blackhawks who beat them previously. Sharp and Oduya were key members of the 2014 squad who ousted St. Louis. Sharp hasn’t lost his knack for big playoff moments. He delivered three goals for the Stars in the first round. He’s still a guy to fear in the third period and overtime.
KEY MATCHUP by Dom Luszczyszyn
It’s a sniper showdown. Jamie Benn hit 41 goals, Vladimir Tarasenko hit 40. Only Alex Ovechkin at 50 and Patrick Kane at 46 had more goals this season than these two and that’ll make for a thrilling second-round matchup. At 5-on-5, Tarasenko has the better statistical profile, besting Benn in goals and points per 60 minutes, while also generating more shot attempts. The issue for Tarasenko is that Benn gets bigger minutes which leads to bigger totals. Tarasenko may be the more dynamic offensive threat, but he wasn’t great in his own end this season. That may be why his minutes get held back, but the risk is certainly worth the reward. Against a team like Dallas, it’ll be run and gun and the Blues will need their superstar to play in order for him to shine. Benn will have it tougher without running mate Tyler Seguin by his side, but that didn’t really stop him in the first round where he racked up 10 points in six games. If the Stars want to advance, he’ll need to continue that pace.
THN’S PICK: BLUES in six games.