The underdogs ruled the day in the Central Division. For the St. Louis Blues, that meant a six-game defeat of the Winnipeg Jets, a Stanley Cup favorite. Meanwhile, the Dallas Stars stifled the Nashville Predators’ offense and downed the division leader in six games. Now, the Central crown comes down to a battle of two teams that spent much of the stretch run fighting for the final divisional playoff spot. The Blues will enter the second round with home-ice advantage, a perk few expected St. Louis would have at any point in the playoffs, while Dallas comes into the proceedings riding the play of a goaltender who has arguably been the best masked man all season.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
The Blues entered the playoffs as the hottest team in the NHL and were quite possibly better than they have been all season in their six-game defeat of the Winnipeg Jets in the opening round. Arguably no performance by any team this post-season has been better than St. Louis’ Game 6 showing. They held Winnipeg to six shots through the first 40 minutes of an elimination game. It was an exceptional outing and proof positive that there’s still a lot left in a group that charged hard to end the campaign.
The key to the Blues’ first-round victory – and the key moving forward – is undoubtedly goaltender Jordan Binnington. Was the rookie netminder as rock-solid in the opening round as he had been throughout the regular season? Statistically, not quite. However, the stops Binnington did make were massive, including a few breakaway attempts and game-saving stops at various points throughout the series. How different does Round 1 end up if Mark Scheifele scores late in Game 1? We’ll never know thanks to Binnington’s miraculous toe save.
Beyond Binnington, a major benefit at the end of the opening round was the emergence of Jaden Schwartz. He took a step back offensively during the regular season, but the Blues winger scored four consecutive goals – the late winner in Game 5 and then three in a row in Game 6 – to propel St. Louis to victory. If Schwartz is only getting started, the Blues’ attack is going to be lethal moving forward. And secondary scoring will be all important in the second round, particularly if it’s slow-going once again for Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko, who combined for four goals and six points in the first round. More will be needed out of those two against a team as stingy as the Stars.
X-Factor: The Predators had no answer for the Stars’ top line, and the Blues will need to find one if they have designs on advancing to the conference final. Luckily, Ryan O’Reilly is one of the best two-way pivots in the game, and he’s going to get a steady diet of Dallas’ top trio. Some of the onus will fall on Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester, as well. That pairing drew the Scheifele line in the opening round.
The Stars couldn’t have asked for more from their top line. Tyler Seguin mustered two goals and six points in the first round. Jamie Benn scored one goal and finished with six points of his own. And Alexander Radulov rounded out the group with four goals and six points in Dallas’ six-game series victory over the Predators. Combined, that’s seven goals and 18 points between the three, and all three averaged roughly 20 minutes of ice time per night. When your top players are your top players, you’re going to get results.
And speaking of top players, how great has Ben Bishop been? The Vezina Trophy finalist, who some consider the frontrunner for the award, was outstanding against Nashville. He allowed a dozen goals against across six games and finished the series with a .945 SP. Bishop has proven himself a playoff performer in the past, but it could be argued that he’s never been as good in a single series as he was against the Predators. He’s the backbone of the Stars defensively, and against an already limiting defensive unit, Bishop makes life much more difficult for the opposing offense.
If we’re to assume that we can expect more of the same from the top line and Bishop, though, the area of concern for the Stars is the bottom half of the lineup. Seguin, Benn and Radulov had to be as good as they were because the rest of the Dallas forward corps combined for nine goals and 14 points through the six-game set. Others stepped up, sure, but the post-season run could come to a close sooner rather than later if the Stars don’t get more offense from middle-six forwards such as Radek Faksa, Blake Comeau and Roope Hintz.
X-Factor: John Klingberg delivered the dagger in Game 6, firing home the overtime winner that sent the Stars through to the second round. Dallas is going to need continued offense from their defense if they’re going to keep up with a Blues team that knows how to and has shown it can score in bunches. Klingberg was great in the opening round, registering six points, and he’s going to have to lead the charge when it comes to production from back end.
Jan. 8, 2019 – DAL 3, STL 1
Jan. 12, 2019 – STL 3, DAL 1
Feb. 21, 2019 – DAL 5, STL 2
March 2, 2019 – DAL 4, STL 1
Fan Favorite: St. Louis Blues
THN Series Pick: St. Louis Blues in six
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