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2019 Stanley Cup playoffs: Blues vs. Stars series preview, pick

Consider where these teams were in January. New Dallas Stars coach Jim Montgomery told reporters that his team suffered from “a culture of mediocrity,” and that’s not long after the Stars weathered the Christmas storm of the team’s CEO calling out the two highest-paid players in an expletive-laced rant.

The St. Louis Blues had a league-worst 34 points on Jan. 2. They had already fired coach Mike Yeo, and after a summer of adding a batch of top-nine forwards to an already talented bunch, it was looking like a lost season.

Now? The Blues are the first team in NHL history to advance to the second round after being in last place at the start of the calendar year. And the Stars unequivocally were the better team in a first-round matchup against the Central Division champion Nashville Predators.

The Stars initially wanted to play a high-tempo, aggressive style, but their identity transformed somewhere along the way to a more methodical, defensively stingy unit. The team struggled to score goals all season but had no problem against the Predators. Not only was the top line sizzling, but Dallas benefited from some secondary help via players like Mats Zuccarello (who has exceeded expectations since returning from injury), Jason Dickinson and breakout rookie Roope Hintz.

St. Louis wiped out the high-powered Winnipeg Jets; the Blues were especially impressive playing in Winnipeg, in the hostile “Whiteout” environment. As St. Louis has cleaned up its defensive structure (thanks to improved goaltending from Jordan Binnington and guidance from interim coach Craig Berube and assistant Steve Ott), credit should also go to the fact that the Blues are playing with conviction; that’s a trait that’s hard to stop.

First line: The Stars’ top line of Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov and Tyler Seguin dominated in the first round, with each player recording six points in the six games. The line is operating at its best right now. For the Blues, Selke Trophy finalist Ryan O’Reilly has been one of the best two-way forwards in the game, and Vladimir Tarasenko is a big-time threat, though he can be streaky; he had only two points (both of them goals) in the six games against Winnipeg. Advantage: Dallas.

Depth: Dallas has had role players step up. Zuccarello could not have meshed better with this forward group, which needed a burst of energy. The Blues, however, have more talent up front, especially in their middle six. Jaden Schwartz, who slumped for long stretches this season, rediscovered his scoring touch, and Patrick Maroon, one of the free-agent additions, is starting to look like the big-bodied playoff threat he was in Edmonton two seasons ago. Advantage: St. Louis.

Defense: Get ready for a defensive battle. Since the All-Star break, the Stars and Blues were the two best defensive teams at 5-on-5, giving up 46 and 47 goals, respectively, in 33 games. The Blues flexed their defensive strength by holding Winnipeg’s dangerous top line to zero points and only 17 shot attempts in the final two games of the series. Dallas’ defense limited the Predators to only 12 goals over six games. Advantage: Even.

Goaltending: Ben Bishop is a Vezina Trophy finalist who is coming into this series after recording a playoff career high of 47 saves to eliminate the Predators. Bishop (.945 save percentage, 1.90 goals-against average, so far) gets to face his hometown team — which drafted him 14 years ago. Binnington, a rookie, barely looked nervous (despite Winnipeg fan taunts suggesting otherwise) in his first playoff action, with a .908 save percentage and 2.63 GAA, numbers that are actually inflated by a 6-3 loss in Game 3. Advantage: Dallas.

Health: The Blues are managing without defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, who is dealing with an injury. Bortuzzo was available for Game 6 of the first round, but the team cautiously held him out. Dallas has weathered some long-term injuries this season, but nothing major at the moment. Advantage: Dallas.

Special teams: The Stars’ penalty kill is excellent, finishing fifth in the league in the regular season, before stopping all 15 of Nashville’s power-play opportunities in the first round (the Preds’ power play, we must note, was absolutely dreadful all season). Dallas’ power play has been average in the regular season (21.0 percent) and playoffs (18.2). The Blues were about the same in the regular season (21.1 percent) but better in the first round (26.3 percent). The Blues’ penalty kill has been strong, but not quite as strong as Dallas’. Advantage: Even.

Coaching: Montgomery is a rookie NHL head coach who has had plenty of success in the college ranks, including a national championship with the University of Denver in 2017. Berube is still technically the interim coach, but that should change soon. He has been patient with his lines but made the right moves when necessary, such as shuffling the top line in the first round. Advantage: Even.

Series prediction: Blues in seven.

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