As we approach the halfway mark of the season, the tension becomes real as every team in the league looks to either get a wildcard spot or maintain their place among the top three. Everyone wants to clinch a playoff spot, but not all can.
At the time of this writing, the Dallas Stars are still out of the wildcard but very close to it. The teams on the Western Conference wildcard are the Anaheim Ducks with 43 points and the Edmonton Oilers with 39 – just like the Stars.
A wildcard spot is good and all until your team is paired with the top one of the Conference for the first round of the playoffs. Basically, what the Stars should aim for is a place between the top three of the division – but the Central Division is a tough one.
Meet the contenders.
Winnipeg and Finnish Machine Patrik Laine
The Winnipeg Jets have a triple threat: their top line, Nikolaj Ehlers-Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler. But perhaps their biggest threat can be found on the second line: Patrik Laine. In fact, Scheifele, Wheeler, and Laine lead their team in goals, with 49, 48, and 30, respectively.
And, of course, their goaltending is one to pay attention to too, with Connor Hellebuyck in front of the net most nights. Hellebuyck is currently #27 among goalies in the league with a save percentage of .909.
“What’s the problem, then?” You might ask. “Ben Bishop is #9 and Anton Khudobin is #23” you might say. Here’s the trick: Winnipeg’s defense is good. Pretty good, actually. Namely Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey.
You know how it goes: you have one defenseman that is fast and uses that to keep the puck away from the opposite team, and you have one D-man that will bring physicality to the game, aka hits. It’s not surprising seeing Byfuglien in a fight (fun fact: he has served 48 penalty minutes so far).
So, what then?
Patrik Laine scores hat tricks like they’re no big deal, but our top line (when awake) can absolutely keep the puck away from Laine. But most of all, and most importantly than dealing with the Jets’ top line is: avoid taking penalties.
See, the trick here is that Byfuglien, as mentioned above, is not afraid of starting a fight. And the Stars happen to have the so-called “angriest man in the league”: Roman Polak. Are you getting the feel of this?
The Stars’ Power Play unit is not going through its best time. In fact, there have been numerous times where fans have wondered if we even have a PP unit, because they haven’t produced much this season. The Jets’ Power Play unit is on a whole different level. What do you know: Patrik Laine leads the league in Power Play goals (10, same as David Pastrnak). Sure, the Stars’ Penalty Kill unit has been doing a good job, but you truly don’t want to give the Jets a PP opportunity.
Goal Review Champions The Nashville Predators
You know it, we know it, the NHL knows it: the Nashville Predators can get full-on ridiculous with their goal reviews. But that’s another story.
In an unexpected (yet really good) turn of events, the Nashville Predators dropped one spot and are now in second place in the Central Division. But that doesn’t mean that they are suddenly bad at hockey. They are still a nightmare, in different ways.
For instance, scoring depth is very real here, even among defensemen. The Preds’ point leaders are Ryan Johansen (center), Roman Josi (defense), Filip Forsberg (left wing), Mattias Ekholm (defense), and Craig Smith (right wing), with Forsberg, Smith, and Ryan Hartman (defense) leading in goals (14, 10, 9).
Just like the Jets, the Preds have a pretty solid defense line, and on top of that, they have not one but two of the best goalies (yes, the backup goalie is really good too): Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros. In short, Nashville is an offensive and defensive machine.
So, what then?
Even this machine can be broken.
The Calgary Flames broke them two out of three times (3-0 and 5-2). Edmonton, San José, Anaheim, Arizona, St. Louis, Colorado, Vancouver, Ottawa, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston have survived as well. In fact, the Stars were close to it last month, with a 5-4 loss in OT. Not bad, not bad at all.
Listen: if the Colorado Avalanche were able push them beyond game four at the playoffs (and the Avs weren’t the team they are right now), the Stars can totally do it.
Also, defenseman P.K Subban is still on injured reserve so that’s one less element to worry about. Just saying.
However, the key might just be: wear them out. Keep the puck in their zone. Shoot, shoot, shoot. Give Rinne or Saros a lot of work to do. And do all that on the first period, preferably. The Stars know how to: they’ve done this multiple times, and – hey! – it works wonders.
From the Ashes Come the Colorado Avalanche
Ah, the Avalanche. Along with the Buffalo Sabres, the Avs are the biggest surprise this season on many levels.
First, they currently sit at number three in the Central Division. Second, Mikko Rantanen leads the league in points with 59. Third, their top line (Gabriel Landeskog-Nathan MacKinnon-Mikko Rantanen) also leads the league in points with 158. All this coming from the team that finished the 2016-2017 season at the bottom.
Their goaltending is good but nothing spectacular due to its inconsistency (in other words: overusing your main goalie and burning him out). Semyon Varlamov is #20 among goalies with a .913 save percentage with Philipp Grubauer at #39 with a save percentage of .900.
“Then why are they above the Stars?!” you might yell. Well, when the Avs are focused, they can be unstoppable. It’s not only the top line, but also the second line, and the third, and the fourth. Scoring depth is real here too (the Stars could learn a trick or two, to be honest), and their PP units are great too (number four league-wide, it’s real).
So, what then?
The Avs weakest point is also the Stars’ weakness: inconsistency. There’s no way we can know if the Avalanche are having a good day, the same way we can’t tell if the Stars are going to be awake during the game.
And the weakness shows, mainly, in the Avs’ defense. Sam Girard is by far the most valuable defenseman from the Avs (young, fast, skilled. Kid is unstoppable), but there’s also Erik Johnson and Ian Cole, who bring hits and a couple of fights from time to time. But when it comes to defensemen who bring physicality, Nikita Zadorov is the number one menace – but he’s currently dealing with an injury.
They also have Tyson Barrie, and that’s where the inconsistency shows. When he’s focused, he is really good; when he is not, he’s just… there. And you can’t expect Ian Cole to do the all the work (the same way they can’t expect Girard to carry the team in terms of defense).
In short: the defense can be broken, but keep the puck away from the top line (especially Rantanen) as much as possible. And also away from Carl Soderberg and J.T Compher. Seriously.
Keepin’ it real
All this can break the Top 3 in the Central Division but the only way the Stars can make their way through Edmonton and Anaheim to make it to the top three spots (and beyond) is if they win, win, win a bunch of games. Sorry, it’s true.
Whatever problems they are facing behind closed (locker room) doors, it’s time to address them, find a solution, and fix them. The Dallas Stars have everything they need to be a playoff team – they just have to embrace it and work it.
Featured Image: AP Photo/Brandon Wade