Dallas Stars (1st seed, Central Division) vs. St. Louis Blues (2nd seed, Central Division)
The Blues just knocked off the Chicago Blackhawks, the reigning Stanley Cup champs, in seven games. Their reward in Round 2? The No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
St. Louis' road won't get any easier.
The showdown between the Stars and Blues is a fascinating matchup between two teams with distinct styles of play that ultimately try to do the same thing -- defend by having the puck as much as possible. It's a flashback to 1999, when Ken Hitchcock and Lindy Ruff squared off in the Stanley Cup finals as the coaches of the Stars and Buffalo Sabres, respectively.
It's also a series that features some of the most exciting offensive players in the game in Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Vladimir Tarasenko but might come down to which of these teams plays defense best.
Here's a look at the second-round showdown between the Stars and Blues:
How they win
St. Louis: The Blues will win if they take the knowledge they gained from beating the reigning champions and apply it to this series against the Stars. The first-round victory over Chicago was a major hurdle for the Blues, who enter this series as a wiser, playoff-tested team.
"We have knowledge now of what it takes, and now we've got to use it," said Hitchcock, now the coach of the Blues. "We have an opportunity in front of us. I'm sure everybody in that room knows it's going to get harder. But we have knowledge, and it's the emotional knowledge of how deep you have to dig."
The Blues will win if they continue to get spread-out scoring from their deep forward groups, along with the occasional Tarasenko breakout. Rookie Robby Fabbri was fearless in the opening series and was a major part of St. Louis' offense. It bodes well for the Blues if he builds off that performance. At their best, the Blues play a relentless, machine-like game that keeps on coming. They did a terrific job of shutting down stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. If they can do the same against Benn and Seguin, the Blues will move on.
Dallas: The Stars have to turn this into a shootout. The Blackhawks were effective when they generated long stretches of offensive-zone time against St. Louis, wearing down the Blues' defensemen and forcing them into bad decisions with the puck. The Stars have the ability to do the same when they're going well; they finished the regular season controlling 52.6 percent of the even-strength shot attempts, a total topped only by the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings.
The Stars played only six games in their first-round series against the Minnesota Wild, yet they scored 21 goals, the most of any team in playoffs. During the regular season, Dallas led the NHL in goals per game at 3.23. Scoring at that rate against a physical, deep and defensively responsible team in the Blues won't be easy, but the Stars will certainly take a run at it. If they do, they win.
How they lose
St. Louis: Their first-round series was such an emotional hurdle for St. Louis that there's always the possibility of a letdown in this series against the Stars. The Blues went 4-1 against the Stars during the regular season and allowed only 10 goals, so they match up well if they can get dialed in quickly. Brian Elliott finished the first round with a .929 save percentage and saw more shots than any other playoff goalie. He answered the challenge and put to bed any doubts about whether he could win a big series. But if the Stars' offensive standouts get going early on in this series, it the Blues -- who have Jake Allen waiting to play -- might have another postseason goalie controversy on their hands.
Dallas: They're running into a machine in the Blues, who have four lines going and a defenseman in Alex Pietrangelo who rose to the occasion in the biggest moments against the Blackhawks. Scoring won't come as easily for Dallas in this series as it did in the regular season, so there won't be the room for error in goal. The Stars will need better goaltending than they got in the first round. Kari Lehtonen won three games but a .911 save percentage won't cut it against the Blues. Lehtonen or Antti Niemi (.870 save percentage in two playoff games) will have to be much better against St. Louis or this will be a short series.
That was Dallas' Corsi-for percentage against the Wild in the first round, a possession number that is tops among playoff teams so far. By comparison, the Blues controlled just 47.2 percent of the shot attempts against Chicago. A big part of that was the competition; the Blackhawks are a much better team than the Wild. But if the Stars continue that pace and spend that much time in the Blues' zone, they will give St. Louis a real run for its money.
St. Louis: Tarasenko is the Blues' flashy star, but Pietrangelo was outstanding against the Blackhawks and his performance in Game 7 was one of the reasons St. Louis advanced. He finished the series with six points in seven games, played more than 30 minutes per game and outplayed Duncan Keith at times during the series. Not many defensemen can say that. Pietrangelo will need another strong series against this offensively dynamic Stars squad.
Dallas: The Blues shut down one Hart Trophy candidate in Kane and now face another one in Benn. Benn lit up the Wild with four goals and 10 points in six games and will be a handful for the Blues, who will likely deploy a steady diet of Alexander Steen on Benn and his linemates. The Blues will try to slow Benn with a relentless physical attack, but he has the build and mindset to push back and fight through it. It will be a fantastic matchup.
This Blues team has the makings of something special. The players talk about how it's the closest group they've had. They're battle-tested, deep, mostly healthy and are coming off a confidence-building series win over the Blackhawks. The Stars are talented and hungry but ultimately won't be able to match the Blues' structure, experience and depth. Blues in 6.