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Stars Are In, but The Real Challenge Begins

The Dallas Stars are off to the playoffs, but they didn't make it easy on themselves. The real test is upon them.
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On a few occasions this year, I’ve extolled the virtues of the Dallas Stars. Starting in the pre-season, I identified the Stars as a team that could do damage in the post-season. 

But as the regular-season comes to a conclusion, my belief in Dallas has been shaken.

It isn’t only that the Stars have backed into a playoff position – they’ve won just three of their past eight games, and it was only because of the collapse of the Vegas Golden Knights was completed Wednesday that Dallas secured a playoff spot – it’s the fact they’re going to be playing either the mighty Colorado Avalanche or the Calgary Flames in the first round that makes the Stars’ future so grim.

If the Nashville Predators – currently one point behind Dallas for the first wild card berth, with one game in hand on the Stars – wind up in the first wild card slot, the Stars will be battling the Avs. Dallas has beaten Colorado in two of three regular-season games this year, but the Avalanche are the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup for good reason: they`re deep, hungry and laden with dynamic talent, in a way the Stars are not.

This is not to say Dallas is bereft of skill and experience; in forwards Jamie Benn, Joe Pavelski, Tyler Seguin and Alex Radulov, they have elite players who’ve experienced the playoff grind many times before. The Stars also have young forwards Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz, and goalie Jake Oettinger, who`ll be part of the foundation of the franchise for years to come. And they’ve got a deep, experienced defense corps that includes star Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg, Ryan Suter and Esa Lindell. For my money, that’s the best one-through-four defense group in the game.

The problem for Dallas is the Avalanche have a superstar in Nathan MacKinnon, a lethal scorer on the wing in Mikko Rantanen, and a Grade-A winger in Gabriel Landeskog. And that’s just their first line – the best line in hockey, who’ve combined to generate 98 goals and an astonishing 238 points this season. Add to that Colorado’s second line of center Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky and former Star Valeri Nichuskin – who’ve combined to amass 72 goals and 123 points – and you have an offense that’s next-to-unstoppable.

As for Colorado’s defense – they may not have the depth of pure skill and playoff experience the Stars have, but they would have the best defenseman of either side in a Dallas/Avs series in Norris Trophy frontrunner Cale Makar. As well, the Avalanche has more-than-capable defenders in Devon Toews, trade-deadline acquisition Josh Manson, youngsters Samuel Girard and Bowen Byram, and veteran Erik Johnson. All of this does not bode well for the Stars in the macro picture.

But let’s say the Stars secure the first wild card berth, and take on Calgary in the first round. That would also be a huge challenge for Dallas. The Flames also have an electric first line – wingers Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, and center Elias Lindholm have combined to produce 121 goals and 175 points – and Calgary would have the best goalie in the series in starter Jacob Markstrom, who has posted an incredible nine shutouts and a .922 save percentage in 62 appearances this season. The Flames can beat you any way you want to play the game, and the Stars would be deserved underdogs in this series as well.

Is there a possibility Dallas defies the odds and upsets the Avs or Flames? Sure there is. But the likelihood of them doing so is slim. The Stars had a chance in the regular season to make it into the second or third spot in the Central Division, and have better odds against the Minnesota Wild or the St. Louis Blues. They blew that chance by going a pedestrian 13-10-3 since March 8, and they now have to deal with better teams in the Avalanche and Flames. Dallas’ 5-3-2 record in their past 10 games isn’t a definitive prediction of how well they’ll play in the first round, but it is an indication they haven’t risen to the occasion in high-stakes games.

Losing to the lowly Coyotes Wednesday underscores that problem for the Stars. They had an opportunity to put themselves in a better standings position than the one they currently occupy, and they squandered it. That very well could be a harbinger of disappointments to come.

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