Dallas Stars (1st seed, Central Division champions) versus Minnesota Wild (second Western Conference wild card)
This looks to be the biggest mismatch in the Western Conference by a country mile, and not just because the Dallas Stars finished 22 points ahead of their first-round opponents, the Minnesota Wild. There are lots of reasons to think the Stars will walk over the Wild, including the fact that the Wild staggered into the postseason with five straight losses. Of course, this is the beauty of the playoffs, no? Clean slate, etc. The Wild are a better team than they've shown for most of this season, and there's no better time to prove that point. As for the Stars, they believe they have the makings of a championship team in their locker room. This is a good time to start making that case.
How they win
Dallas: The Stars are the highest-scoring team in the NHL and fifth on the power play. In the enhanced category of shot attempts for and against in close games, the Stars ranked third while the Wild were a distant 20th. The Stars have also won six in a row at the American Airlines Center, which bodes well for jumping on the Wild early. Last season's NHL scoring champ Jamie Benn finished with 41 goals, the first time a Star topped the 40-goal plateau since Hall of Famer Mike Modano scored 50 in 1993-94. Jason Spezza has erupted of late, including notching three in the Game 82 win over the Nashville Predators, finishing with 33 on the season, another illustration of the Stars' enviable offensive depth. As long as that offense doesn't dry up -- putting too much pressure on either Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi in goal -- the Stars should be able to control this series with its superior offense, special teams and puck possession.
Minnesota: First, the Wild will have to stop losing every game. Ha, ha -- a little playoff joke there. But seriously, goalie Devan Dubnyk will have to be out-of-his-mind good to keep this series close. And for a team that had so little going for it down the stretch, Dubnyk has been pretty solid, going 14-11-1 since the All-Star break with a .912 save percentage. He had a .927 save percentage in March, although in four April losses he's managed just an .886 save percentage, and given that he's bound to face a lot of rubber (Dallas is third in shots per game while the Wild are 23rd), he'll have to be at the top of his game in order to keep this from becoming a track meet the Wild cannot win. Apart from that, the Wild are going to have to be a lot better on special teams, where they are middle of the pack on the power play and a woeful 27th killing penalties, not a good stat against the firepower the Stars bring. If they can find a way to saw off the special-teams battle, that will go a long way toward making this a competitive series. Erik Haula had a nice stretch in March, with six goals and six assists, but he went without a point in April. So, scoring depth will be key in effecting any kind of upset.
How they lose
Dallas: The only way the Stars lose this series, apart from cataclysmic injury to most of their star players, is if the goaltending comes undone completely and head coach Lindy Ruff can't find the right pattern for choosing his starter. I'm guessing Lehtonen gets the Game 1 start, but because Niemi has playoff experience (he won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010), the question is how long is Lehtonen's leash and when would Ruff be inclined to make a goaltending move if Lehtonen falters. The loss of Tyler Seguin is problematic while he recovers from a partially shredded Achilles tendon (he was scheduled to skate with his teammates Monday), but even without him, it would take a monster collapse for the Stars not to win this series.
Minnesota: The Wild lose this series by being exactly what they've been down the stretch, and that is a team that too often falls behind and lacks the chutzpah to come back from adversity.
The Stars have allowed just six power-play goals over their last 22 games -- including back-to-back games of killing six penalties -- which reinforces the notion that they are not just a one-trick pony that will have to rely solely on its offense to get things done.
Dallas: Yes, captain Jamie Benn is the straw that stirs the Stars' drink, but the guy who was brought in to make a difference at this time of year is three-time Stanley Cup champion Patrick Sharp. Sharp collected points in six of his last seven games and has 14 points in his last 18. If this team goes a little sideways, watch for Sharp to get them back on track.
Minnesota: I noted Dubnyk's pivotal role in this series, but if the Wild are going to effect the upset, they're going to have to get to the Stars' goaltenders and that lands squarely on de facto captain Zach Parise. It's been a difficult season for Parise, who had just seven goals in 18 games since the beginning of March after having a strong start to the season and has reportedly been dealing with injuries. But if there is a clutch goal to be delivered for the underdog Wild, I'm guessing Parise delivers it.
The Stars are far better prepared for the playoffs than most people give them credit for, and they will prove that unequivocally against an overmatched Minnesota Wild team that has been surprisingly fragile this season. Stars in 5.