The Dallas Stars aren’t likely to win the Stanley Cup this season. Simply put, this just isn’t the year. From the off-ice issues, including the now-infamous and all-too-public dressing down of top players Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, to those that have plagued the team on-ice, the continued lack of depth and offensive contributions beyond the top line, there’s still some fine-tuning that this roster needs to go through in order for Dallas to take the next step from wild-card contender to championship caliber club.
But not winning the big prize and failing to stand in the winner’s circle at season’s end doesn’t mean Dallas can’t make some noise in the post-season. And as the season winds on, there’s some reason to believe the Stars could be one of the most difficult first-round draws and play the role of playoff spoiler come playoff time.
While some will point to Dallas’ poor underlying numbers — they’re one of the league’s worst possession teams and only narrowly outside the bottom-third of the league in 5-on-5 shot and scoring chance percentages — as the reason the Stars will be nothing more than first-round fodder, there are a few reasons to believe that won’t be the case. Despite what was said about Seguin and Benn earlier in the campaign, the fact remains that the duo has the ability to be one of the most potent in the league. Add Alexander Radulov to the mix and you’ve got a trio that has game-breaking potential. On the back end, there’s offensive firepower in John Klingberg, and Miro Heiskanen is looking every bit the first-pairing defenseman and the rookie is only getting better with each game.
The biggest reason why the Stars might have what it takes to create some post-season havoc, though, stands 6-foot-7 and patrols the blue paint in Dallas.
Not far removed from being heralded as one of the top goaltenders in the NHL, with two Vezina Trophy top-threes to show for it between the 2013-14 and 2015-16 campaigns, Ben Bishop has had a minor resurgence in the Stars crease this season after a good-but-not-great showing last season, his first in Dallas. In fact, while others such as Frederik Andersen, John Gibson, Robin Lehner and Bishop’s former teammate and eventual replacement on the Tampa Bay Lightning, Andrei Vasilevskiy, have drawn Vezina consideration through the early part of the season, the towering Stars netminder has completely flown under the radar.
On Wednesday night, as he has all season, Bishop displayed why he has potential to be a difference-maker in the playoffs. Against the Eastern Conference wild-card contending Buffalo Sabres, a team as desperate as Dallas to pick up points at a crucial point in the campaign, Bishop slammed the door, stopping all 30 shots he faced against en route to pitching his third shutout of the season.
In blanking the Sabres, Bishop’s season-to-date numbers climbed further and into a space among the league’s best this season; he is now sporting a .924 save percentage and 2.29 goals-against average. To put Bishop’s performance throughout the campaign into context, there are 43 goaltenders this season who have appeared in at least 20 games. Bishop’s SP puts him second among that crop of netminders, his GAA ranks second and his third shutout also puts him into a tie for second. Diving deeper, too, Bishop’s performance remains impressive.
At 5-on-5, Bishop is one of 45 goaltenders to play at least 850 minutes. Of that group, he’s tied for 13th with a .925 SP and his goals-saved above average — a measure of shots stopped that would have beaten a league-average keeper — is .20 per 60 minutes of play, the 15th-best mark among the 850-minute goaltenders. (His total 5-on-5 GSAA, 4.2, is eighth-best in the NHL.) Bishop’s numbers are bolstered, too, by his penalty kill play, where his .897 SP is the seventh-best among all netminders to face at least 100 minutes down a skater. If a team’s best penalty killer is supposed to be its goaltender, Bishop has certainly been that for the Stars’ sixth-ranked unit.
It has helped, no doubt, that the one area the Stars have succeeded this season defensively is in protecting the home-plate area in front of the net. For all their shortcomings — and there are several — Dallas has done well to insulate Bishop from high-danger opportunities. Per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, the Stars have the eighth-fewest high-danger shots against (10.1), and that has bled through to Bishop’s numbers, where his eight high-danger shots against per 60 minutes is the 18th-fewest among the 850-minute netminders at five-a-side.
Worth noting, as well, is that Bishop has a knack for showing up in the post-season. In 36 career post-season appearances, Bishop has turned in an outstanding .927 SP, 2.09 GAA and five shutouts. Ranked against other goaltenders who’ve made at least 25 post-season appearances in the post-lockout era, Bishop has the sixth-best SP while sitting tied for the sixth-best GAA and eighth-most shutouts. He’s been lights out in the playoffs.
Of course, Bishop alone won’t be able to guide Dallas through the entire post-season and propel them into a deep run. Beyond Seguin, Benn and Radulov, Stars GM Jim Nill has work to do to bolster the depth of his club and add talent to his roster that can give Dallas the depth necessary to make good on the opportunities they may get in the playoffs. But even with their current makeup, what will give the Stars the chance to potentially steal a round is Bishop’s play, and that makes them an unenviable draw come the opening round.