The Dallas Stars are likely the most overlooked team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The reasoning behind it is simple: It took the team until the final weekend of the season to clinch a playoff spot. They are the underdog of underdogs heading into playoffs, but as the saying goes: Every dog has its day.
(8th in the Western Conference, 5th in the Central Division)
Preseason Expectations: Dallas rarely provided a reason to hold high expectations going into a new season. The team had missed the playoffs for the previous five years, never quite bad enough to get a high draft pick, but never quite good enough to push themselves into the playoffs. The organization was stuck in hockey limbo.
How they got here: Two major streaks allowed Dallas to separate themselves from the rest of the Western Conference bubble teams. In early November, the Stars won 6 out of 7 games to push the team out of the 5-6-2 hole they had dug themselves into. A trying December and January seemed to doom Dallas’s playoff hopes, but from February 1 until March 11, the team again ran on a hot streak, winning 8 out of the 11 games played during that time span. By the end, the Stars were in 8th place in the West, a spot they fought tooth and nail to hold until the end of the regular season.
Key players: C Tyler Seguin, L Jamie Benn, D Trevor Daley, G Kari Lehtonen
Major Moves: Dallas has been building their team for many years, looking for the one player that would push them over the edge and turn them into a playoff contender. In the offseason, they were provided that player. The Stars acquired Tyler Seguin from the Boston Bruins in July and turned him into a key piece of their offensive game. Seguin would respond to the added responsibility, putting up 84 points in 80 games this year, good for the No. 4 spot in league-wide scoring. Not to be overlooked is Dallas’s recent first round draft pick, Val Nichushkin, whose physical style of play and scoring ability added some much-needed depth to the Stars lineup.
Who they will face in the first round: While Dallas was in competition for the last wild card spot, the 1st seed in the West was also up for grabs. The St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks, and Colorado Avalanche all had their sights set for that coveted No. 1 seeding, but in the end, the Ducks would finish ahead of the rest. The season series between Dallas and Anaheim was a 2-1 advantage in the Stars favor, thanks to a 2-0 win in February that began the very successful two-month run for Dallas.
How they will fare: Despite being an 8th seed, Dallas may fare better than most would expect. The Ducks started off the year on a ridiculous pace, being 38-8-5 at one point in the season, but have cooled down considerably since then. They will not be an easy opponent for the Stars to overcome, but it is doable. The X-factor in the series will be goaltending. Lehtonen has been a rock for Dallas all year, and the acquisition of former Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas at the trade deadline provides an excellent backup plan if Lehtonen should falter. The Ducks, on the other hand, may have to rely on inexperienced goaltenders in the opening round. They have Jonas Hiller, who has provided steady, if average, goaltending for them this year, but should he fail to outduel Lehtonen, the Ducks have only rookie goaltenders behind him.
Prediction: Stars in 7.
Conn Smythe Winner: To reach the Stanley Cup Finals and win the Cup, you need experience and a veteran presence. Few players have as much as winger Ray Whitney. He, along with teammate Erik Cole, won a Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, showing they know what it takes to overcome adversity. That experience should help the Stars bring home hockey’s ultimate prize.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner