GLENDALE, Ariz. — Mike Modano is reserving judgment on the Stanley Cup worthiness of the modern-day Dallas Stars.
“The playoffs are a whole different animal from the regular season,” said Modano, who led the Stars to their only Stanley Cup in 1999. “You have to go through it and experience it — all the adversity and all of that grind. You find out a lot about yourself when you go through those experiences.”
The Stars will find out something about their postseason readiness this spring. Just one point out of first place in the Western Conference and with an 18-point lead on the wild card teams entering Wednesday’s games, Dallas should clinch a playoff berth sometime in March after missing the playoffs last season, and in six of their last seven seasons.
Winning the Central Division would give Dallas a far more favorable first-round matchup, helping the Stars avoid Chicago or St. Louis until the second round, but the Stars would still likely have to go through two legitimate contenders (don’t expect the Los Angeles Kings or Anaheim Ducks to go down easy) just to reach the Cup Finals, where they could face a much more formidable Eastern Conference champ if Washington finally exorcises past playoff demons.
So how do the Stars stack up with those clubs?
“If they’re not ready now I don’t think they ever will be,” said Today’s Slapshot editor and analytics specialist, Carolyn Wilke. “The Stars have this reputation as a bad defensive team but it’s really not true. From a statistical standpoint, they’re actually much closer to Los Angeles and Chicago than the loosey goosey teams like the Islanders.”
From a traditional statistics standpoint, Dallas ranks second in the NHL in goals per game (3.21), seventh in power-play percentage (21.1), 18th in goals against per game (2.66) and 20th on the penalty kill at 80 percent. The latter two stats earn them the aforementioned reputation, but Wilke noted that is more likely a product of the Stars’ style of play.
“Their defensive numbers are actually pretty close to league average in shots against (28.9, 10th), Corsi against (53.8, 14th per war-on-ice.com) and Fenwick against (40.3 18th),” she said. “The only thing that’s not near league average is the number of high-danger chances they allow, but that’s just the way they play. They’re a fast team, a counter-attacking team. They’re not Nashville.”
As of last week, Wilke said the Stars were allowing an average of 11.7 high-danger chances per 60 minutes, well above the league average of 10.6. But Dallas also generates 12.9 high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes, the second highest mark in the league.
“They’re just so good offensively,” she said.
That jibes with one of Modano’s observations. While some have questioned the Stars’ ability to succeed in the playoffs if the top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Patrick Sharp (who also plays on the second line) isn’t producing. That line has accounted for 75 goals and 168 points, but Dallas has five players who have already topped the 40-point barrier and 10 who have already topped 20 points. The former stat leads the Western Conference and the latter is tied for the conference lead.
“I think their top six is better than any top six in the league,” Modano said. “They’re even getting production from guys like (Mattias) Janmark and Valeri Nichushkin. Once they get (injured center Jason) Spezza back,” which could happen Thursday in Arizona, “it adds a whole third line, which is so critical in the playoffs. When you have that depth you force teams to decide which guys their top two defensive pairs match up with.”
For Wilke, the Stars’ biggest concern has been the inconsistency of Dallas goaltenders Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi, whose combined 0.908 save percentage ranks 19th in the NHL. For Modano, the experience still weighs heavily.
“Everybody has to start somewhere,” he said. “Chicago did. Pittsburgh did and L.A. did. They were all in situations where they didn’t have much or any playoff experience so they didn’t have that measuring stick.”
Dallas hopes the additions of Sharp and defenseman Johnny Oduya from Chicago (not to mention Niemi) will help in that regard, but Wilke admitted that if the Stars do win their second Cup, they will be bucking a trend.
In the 10 completed seasons since the season-ending lockout in 2004-05, only two teams have finished outside the top 10 in goals against and won the Cup. Pittsburgh finished 17th in 2008-09 and Carolina finished 19th in 2005-06. By contrast, seven of those 10 Cup winners finished in the top five in goals against, with the last five finishing either first or second.
As an extension of defending, only one of those 10 teams has finished outside the top 10 in goals against and penalty-killing percentage (Carolina also finished 19th in PK percentage). As noted above, Dallas currently ranks 18th in goals against and 20th on the penalty kill.
“It would it be a very different look; a different style of Cup winner,” Wilke said. “But if anyone could do it, I’d say it’s Dallas more than anyone else.”
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