One doesn’t need to go back all that far to find some Game 7 history between the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars, who are getting set for a winner-take-all affair Tuesday night that will see one team advance to the Western Conference final and the other head home for the summer. In fact, one need not go back further than three seasons to find the last time these two teams met under the same set of circumstances.
It was during the 2016 post-season that Dallas and St. Louis last clashed in the playoffs, and that series, too, was a second-round meeting that went a full seven games. The difference? That year, it was the Stars who had home-ice advantage heading into the final meeting between the clubs, and Dallas and St. Louis entered the series as the top two seeds in the Central Division. And as Game 7 draws near, the Stars also hope there’s another difference between this series-deciding tilt and the last time they met the Blues in such an affair: the result.
Last time, it was a laugher in favor of St. Louis, the kind of game that was all over but the handshakes a few minutes into the second frame. The Blues scored three times in the first period, less than four minutes into the second and finished the contest having blown six goals past the Stars’ then-goaltending duo of Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen on only 16 shots. The 6-1 final score sealed the Stars’ fate, while the Blues skated into the Western Conference final, where they eventually fell to the San Jose Sharks.
So, how does Dallas go about ensuring there’s not a repeat of their 2016 performance? How does St. Louis replicate that result? Here are five keys to Tuesday’s Game 7:
DISCIPLINE AGAINST DALLAS
The Blues have been well disciplined throughout the entire post-season. In fact, no team has spent fewer minutes per post-season game on the penalty kill than St. Louis, which is averaging a mere 4:35 per game on the kill through 12 games thus far. But here’s the thing: the Blues have needed every ounce of the discipline they’ve shown because their penalty kill, which was among the 10 best in the regular season at 81.5 percent, has dipped precipitously in the playoffs.
Against the Winnipeg Jets, the Blues posted a 78.6 percent rate on the PK, which was among the worst of Round 1. It’s only dipped further against the Stars, who have shredded St. Louis when the Blues have been shorthanded. On 14 penalty kills, St. Louis has allowed four goals against, good for a 71.4 percent kill rate. Given that’s nearly one-third of all the goals the Blues have surrendered in the series, too, you can see how important it is that St. Louis stays out of the box.
The Blues can beat the Stars at five-a-side. In fact, St. Louis is outscoring Dallas 13-8 during 5-on-5 action. But if the Stars can goad the Blues into a few infractions or force St. Louis into some errant sticks, Dallas has shown they can capitalize.
BINNINGTON VS. BISHOP
Entering the second round, this series was set to become a battle of two netminders who had guided their teams through the second half of the season and the expectation was that we would witness a few duels between the masked men. Instead, Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington and Stars starter Ben Bishop have traded wins with the latter’s 38-save victory in Game 5 the only truly game-stealing performance of the series. With the round coming down to the wire, though, goaltending can be the difference and whichever netminder lives up to his pre-series hype the most will likely be the one who sees his team advance.
So, who has the edge entering Tuesday night? Well, Bishop may be the one up for the Vezina Trophy, but he’s been largely outplayed by Binnington, who has a .914 save percentage at all strengths to Bishop’s .909 SP output, and at five-a-side, the Blues keeper’s .942 SP is far better than Bishop’s .908 effort. If that holds, safe to say St. Louis moves on.
What makes Binnington’s performance – and the fact he’s largely outplayed Bishop – that much more impressive is that he’s been under greater duress against Dallas than he was against Winnipeg or throughout the back half of the season. To wit, Binnington averaged 6.7 high-danger shots against and had an expected goals against of 1.91 per 60 minutes of play at 5-on-5 during the regular season. Against the Jets, those numbers rose to 7.8 and 2.2, respectively. But they’ve reached a higher point yet against the Stars, who’ve put up 8.6 high-danger shots per 60 minutes against Binnington, which has increased his expected goals against rate to 2.4.
Thus, with everything on the line in Game 7, there’s a key here for both sides. For the Blues, it’s limiting those opportunities and ensuring that Binnington is as well insulated as he has been at any other point in the season, which will reduce the need for the keeper to come up big in an all-important series-deciding contest. For the Stars, it’s the opposite. Dallas must continue to pressure Binnington in hopes that he cracks and has an outing similar to his four-goal-against performance in Game 4. That should be more than enough offensive support to win this one.
KEEP KLINGBERG QUIET
The continued emergence of Esa Lindell, all that flopping and flailing aside, and the rise of rookie Miro Heiskanen has made it so that John Klingberg has been able to go about his business without the spotlight shone directly on him. He thrived in the relative silence surrounding his play, too, putting up six points in six games during the opening round against the Nashville Predators, including the series-winning overtime goal. And now Dallas needs him to come through with another big offensive outburst if they want to ensure they’re going to advance.
The Blues have done a great job of keeping Klingberg somewhat silent through the six games that have been played, however. Though he’s averaged two shots per game, he has one goal and three points. If St. Louis continues to hold him off the scoresheet, it bodes well for their chances. But if he can breakout and contribute, Klingberg can drive the Stars offensively and push carry them into the third round.
DEPTH DOING DAMAGE
If the powerhouses from both clubs cancel each other out, which is to say everything produced by St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko, Ryan O’Reilly and Jaden Schwartz is matched by Dallas’ Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov, the contest is going to come down to a battle of depth. And while the Stars’ Roope Hintz and Mats Zuccarello have been two of the higher scorers in the series, when it gets down to a battle of third and fourth lines, the scale might tip ever-so-slightly in the Blues’ favor.
We’ve seen through six games how impactful Robert Thomas can be, Brayden Schenn can make an impact at any moment, David Perron had himself an excellent season but has had a rather quiet series and even a fill-in such as Sammy Blais entered the proceedings in Game 6 and made his presence felt immediately with a big goal. On paper, St. Louis’ depth gives them the edge, no matter how well a few of Dallas’ middle-sixers have played throughout the series. If the Blues depth players show up, St. Louis is likely to book a ticket to the conference final.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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