It’s time to give the Dallas Stars their due. They won the best division in hockey, they advanced largely uncontested through the first round of the playoffs and on Friday in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series with St. Louis, they were far and away the better team.
The national media has had a field day with Dallas’s defense and goaltending this season. Just wait until the postseason when the checking gets tighter and the scores get lower, they said. Just wait until the Stars have to win nail-biters. Just wait until they have to combat the Blues’ more disciplined style and improved skill; two elements that took down the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks in Round 1.
It can’t be overlooked that Dallas allowed 230 goals this season; the worst total of any playoff team. It can’t be ignored that goaltenders Kari Lehtonen (.906) and Antti Niemi (.905) finished with poor save percentages. You have to jump to the second page of the NHL’s save percentage “leaders” to find them.
If you can force the Stars to defend in their own end, they can be an absolute train wreck, as many pundits have noted, and their goaltenders have not shown a consistent ability to save their bacon when that happens.
Here’s the problem with that argument. It doesn’t happen that often. It felt like Dallas had the puck the entire game against the Blues. They outshot St. Louis 42-32 and that disparity doesn’t do justice to the Stars’ dominance.
The Blues did such a good job bottling up the neutral zone against the Blackhawks in the first round, but St. Louis couldn’t handle the Stars’ speed and couldn’t handle the Stars’ depth.
Dallas used both elements to generate multiple odd-man rushes. The Stars were a runaway train coming through the neutral zone and their two goals came from bottom-six forwards Antoine Roussel and Radek Faksa.
“We’ve got to find the energy to play our game, and we’ve got to find it quickly in the next 48 hours,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told reporters in Dallas.
If St. Louis is going to win this series it will have to find a way to sustain a consistent forecheck; a way to use its size to pound the Stars defensemen and generate chances off the cycle, although it should be noted that Dallas matched the Blues’ physical play on Friday.
Hitchcock must also rethink his strategy between the blue lines. You can’t let Dallas generate that kind of pace in transition and expect to win. The Stars have too much skill up front and they will always make you pay. Just ask Chicago, which was utterly outclassed in four of five meetings with Dallas this season.
“I thought we skated well, I thought we defended well. I thought we were physical,” Dallas coach Lindy Ruff said. “It’s a good start to the series for us.”
It might have looked even better if not for Blues goaltender Brian Elliott (Chicago knows that pain, too). Elliott stopped 40 shots to continue his torrid run through the postseason, but his teammates couldn’t generate enough quality chances against Lehtonen for that to matter.
“I think it’s exactly what we thought it was going to be,” Elliott said. “They threw a lot of stuff at the net and put a lot of bodies at the net.”
While we’re at it, can we take a moment to acknowledge that Dallas is doing this without injured top center Tyler Seguin, one of eight players this season to average at least a point per game in at least 45 games played?
The road to the Stanley Cup is long. Momentum can shift along the way, but it’s no longer OK to dismiss the Stars. The flaws that others see in them are getting lost in the flaws they expose in other teams.
Their claim to the Cup is as legitimate as any team standing.
Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter