Western Conference Round 2 Preview: Blues vs. Stars

 

 

How the Stars got here:

No Tyler Seguin, no problem. Jim Nill’s move to acquire Jason Spezza from the Senators has really paid off, and the veteran center was tied for third in scoring after Round 1. Offense is the name of the game for the Stars, who pumped an overmatched Minnesota team for 21 goals, tied with Pittsburgh for the best output after one round. Whatever mistakes the Stars defense or goaltending were going to make were mitigated by the fact that the Wild offense depended on Jason Pominville (a 10-year low with 36 points on the season) and Nino Niederreiter (fifth in scoring on the team), especially without the services of star left winger Zach Parise. Lindy Ruff is playing with fire by alternating goalies after losses, and thankfully for him, it worked out, though maybe only for one round.

How the Blues got here:

It almost didn’t happen. After Alex Pietrangelo basically guaranteed a win in Game 6 in Chicago, and then proceeded to allow six goals in a loss, it really felt like the Blues were on the outs again, despite looking like the better team all series. The Blackhawks have been unflappable in recent years, counting on its star players, coaching and experience to come through when the team needed. Despite a nail-biting finish to Game 7, the Blues exorcized their demons, defeating the reigning Stanley Cup champions, 3-2. Brian Elliott had a strong bounce back game after Game 6, and despite his limited ice time, Vladimir Tarasenko is arguably the most dangerous sniper in the league right now.

 

The best player in the series is:

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There are plenty of candidates, but nobody in the league is better than Jamie Benn right now. He’s been unstoppable.

 

The best defenseman in the series is:

Pietrangelo, even with his ill-advised words. He averaged 30 minutes (including 39:49 in Game 5) against one of the league’s best teams and kept them in check, using his skating ability to keep up with Chicago’s forwards, and even managed to pitch in with six points on offense. If there’s any doubt who the third right-shooting defenseman will be for Canada at the World Cup, Pietrangelo’s first-round performance certainly erased it.

 

The best goalie in the series is:

Brian Elliott, because he held his own, refusing to quit in Game 7 despite an embarrassing showing in Game 6. Though his .929 save percentage and 2.40 goals-against average is nowhere near the top of the leader board, it’s worth noting that he faced more shots than any other goalie in the first round, and looked very comfortable stoning Patrick Kane on more than one occasion. Could he implode? Yes, but the odds of that happening are still lower than Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi combined.

 

Why the Blues will win:

If the Canucks proved anything in 2011, it’s that defeating an arch-rival can give a team a new lease on life, a breath of fresh air. The Blues should be very confident heading into Round 2, knowing full well that the Western Conference is likely theirs to lose. The Stars offense, minus Tyler Seguin, will be easier to stop, and once again Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester will draw the opposition’s top line. The Blues’ physicality is something the Stars defense may have as much difficulty with as the Blackhawks, who found their defensemen routinely pinned against the boards. John Klingberg, averaging 24:04 in the playoffs and just one of two defenseman on the team averaging more than 20 minutes, is a little smaller and plays with less of an edge than Duncan Keith, and he’ll be punished repeatedly if he can’t get the puck out of his own zone. It won’t seem like much early in the series, but the Blues certainly have the ability to grind the Stars down. Unless the puck is on Tarasenko’s stick, of course, because he’ll make quick work of Lehtonen and/or Niemi.

 

The Blues’ X-factor:

Jake Allen is an excellent insurance policy, but Elliott has to continue his strong play. A goalie switch could spell disaster for a team that doesn’t quite have the experience or intestinal fortitude of the Kings or Blackhawks (Scott Darling, anyone?). Game 6 proved that Elliott can be beat, but he rebounded nicely in Game 7, and that’s the type of resiliency the Blues need from their goaltending to stay in the series.

 

Why the Blues will lose:

Will the Stars be in control of the series at any point? With shaky goaltending and a relatively green and shallow defensive corps, it seems like the only way they can pull out of this is if the Blues shoot themselves in the foot. That could mean chasing Elliott out of the net after a particularly poor performance, or taking advantage of Ken Hitchcock’s stubbornness and making sure Tarasenko stays off the ice as much as possible. Let’s not take everything away from the Stars, however. Lindy Ruff was one Brett Hull foot away from potentially winning the Cup and Benn has the ability to cut through any neutral zone trap and dominate any defense willing (or stupid) enough to face him head-to-head. The Blues have been very good at keeping their mistakes to a minimum. Failing to do that, the Stars have a potent offense ready to capitalize.

 

The Stars’ X-factor:

If Seguin can’t go this series, Benn will be looking to Spezza for help. As the Stars’ de facto No. 2 center, Spezza was brilliant against Minnesota, whose defense found it difficult to contain two on-fire players playing on different lines. It’s highly, highly unlikely Hitchcock will alter his matchups, especially in the defensive zone, meaning Spezza’s line will likely draw Colton Parayko or Kevin Shattenkirk, but a strong performance from Spezza may at least force Hitchcock to think twice. Paul Stastny kept Jonathan Toews in check in Round 1 and the Blues’ best faceoff option, but if he’s going against Benn, that leaves Spezza to deal with Jori Lehtera or David Backes, who have won just 47 and 48 percent of their faceoffs, respectively.

 

Prediction:

The Blues have the edge in goaltending, but on a good night for the Stars, it’s basically a wash. What it will come down to is matchups and depth, and Hitchcock and the Blues have the clear advantage here. Blues in 6.