(Ed. Note: With its new playoff format, the NHL is seeking to create passion for fans and teams through forced, bracketed relationships. But hey, at first glance, the matchups are pretty sexy. All of this led to one ideal theme for our 2014 Playoff Preview: Tinder, the social media dating app. We hope you swipe right this postseason ...)
For the second year in a row, the Anaheim Ducks surprised us with their excellence. Sure, folks expected them to be good, but few had them winning the Pacific, let alone the West. The Ducks were an unstoppable force this year, racking up a league-high 54 wins.
Now the question becomes whether or not they can keep it up in the postseason, because this club posted similar regular-season results similar last year, only to fall at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings in round one. Another would be a disaster.
As for the Stars, in their first year under Jim Nill, they look like a brand-new franchise, and not just because they've changed shades of green. The arrival of Tyler Seguin and the continued improvement of captain Jamie Benn has given them a first line and an identity, and the rest of the team has fallen into place. Make no mistake: the Stars aren't just happy to be here. This is a team trending in the right direction, and if the Ducks stumble or take them lightly for a moment, this series could go pear-shaped in a hurry.
Anaheim Ducks (1) vs. Dallas Stars (4)
April 16: Dallas Stars at Anaheim Ducks, 10 p.m. ET.
April 18: Dallas Stars at Anaheim Ducks, 10 p.m. ET.
April 21: Anaheim Ducks at Dallas Stars, 9:30 p.m. ET.
April 23: Anaheim Ducks at Dallas Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET.
April 25: Dallas Stars at Anaheim Ducks, 10:30 p.m. ET.*
April 27: Anaheim Ducks at Dallas Stars, TBA*
April 29: Dallas Stars at Anaheim Ducks, TBA*
Two of the Western Conference's best duos do battle, as Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf go up against Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. This matchup will more than likely decide the series.
You'd have to give the edge to Perry and Getzlaf, two savvy veterans who have been through this before, and already won a Stanley Cup together. That sort of experience will likely come in handy against a team as inexperienced as Dallas. But it would be foolish to count Seguin and Benn out. They're younger and faster, and if they can push the pace, they might be able to wrestle control of this series. Still, it's always dangerous to trade chances with the Ducks. They're the league's highest-scoring team.
It's not just because of their first line, either. They've gotten key contributions from their depth all season, and they'll need that to continue to win out. Their second line of Mathieu Perrault, Teemu Selanne and Patrick Maroon chips in with timely offense, and their third line, anchored by Saku Koivu and Andrew Cogliano, is a formidable shutdown group that can burn teams with their speed in transition.
Even their fourth line, with Daniel Winnick and Kyle Palmieri, has been putting up numbers. Both had 30-point seasons.
Dallas isn't quite as deep up front. After Seguin and Benn, the next highest-scorer is a defenseman. But they have some skill in the lower lines. The second-line trio of Ryan Garbutt, Antoine Roussel, and Cody Eakin all chipped in at least 14 goals, and Erik Cole and Alex Chiasson scored 16 and 13 from line three.
One of the most interesting storylines from this series will be the play of Stephane Robidas, who was a Star to begin the year, but was traded to the Ducks a month ago for a conditional pick. Now he's playing on a shutdown pairing with Francois Beauchemin, and could be the key to stopping the Stars' all-important first line. Safe to say this series will determine who won that trade.
The Ducks' other pair of Cam Fowler and Ben Lovejoy will be counted on to push the pace and provide offense from the back-end. They're smart players and puck-movers, but not the best defenders in the world. Dallas will get their chances against this duo.
As for the Stars, Alex Goligoski has quietly had an incredible bounceback year, putting up more points than every Star but Benn and Seguin. He plays on a pair with Trevor Daley that's likely to see a lot of Perry and Getzlaf.
Brenden Dillon and Jordie Benn are the second pair, and they're smart, young players who will be relied on to help Dallas push the pace.
All in all, neither team is going to kill you with their defence, as neither team boasts a true no. 1 defender. But that's what makes this series so intriguing. It's going to be full of chances.
If the Stars have a significant advantage, it's here. Kari Lehtonen has been his usual steady self all year. He's been known to stand on his head, which is always a concern in these first-round series.
Meanwhile, the Anaheim crease comes pre-loaded with questions. Jonas Hiller's had some rough starts of late. Ten days ago, Hiller returned from a three-game hiatus designed to improve his sharpness. He was pulled after surrendering four first-period goals on nine shots. He could be sharper, is what I'm saying. Backup Frederik Andersen's looked good, but he's been dealing with an upper-body injury. And if Hiller is shaky and Anderson's not fully healthy, do the Ducks turn the crease over to rookie John Gibson?
You'd think the Stars would be coming in white-hot, since that's usually the case for the team that snags the last spot. But not so. Dallas finished the year a ho-hum 6-4-0, as their main pursuers, Vancouver and Phoenix, fell apart down the stretch, allowing the Stars to walk in.
The Ducks should have looked similarly humdrum towards the end of the year, what with their playoff spot all sewn up well in advance, but they actually closed out the season on a four-game winning streak.
There were some that thought Lindy Ruff's dismissal in Buffalo spelled the end of his NHL career, that he wouldn't be able to adjust to the new NHL. Some were wrong. Lindy's reinvented the Stars' attack, leading the Stars to the playoffs, where his 16 years of NHL coaching experience are likely to come in handy.
Bruce Boudreau's third season in Anaheim has gone about as well as one could hope for, and the performances he's gotten out of his forwards have been impressive to say the least. He's not nearly as experienced as Ruff, however, having never coached beyond the second round.
Amazingly, when it comes to special teams, neither of these clubs are all that special. Anaheim and Dallas finished the year 15th and 16th, respectively, on the powerplay, and both were well outside the top 10 in the penalty kill. Anaheim's is better, at 82.2%, good for 13th, while Dallas's sits at 81.4% -- 22nd.
That's enough for us to give Anaheim the advantage, especially since middle of the pack or otherwise, you never want to give Perry and Getzlaf time and space and an extra man in the offensive zone.
SERIES SLOW JAM
"Running" - Jessie Ware
These are two fast-paced teams that will likely be trying to push the pace and keep their opponents running. This sexy tune is perfect for them as they go oooooooooh head-to-head...
SWIPE LEFT ON... Jonas Hiller. The Ducks' starter was iffy last postseason, and his late-season struggles have been enough to give Anaheim fans pause. He'll start this series, but if there are any issues early on, he could lose the crease.
SWIPE RIGHT ON... Colton Sceviour. The Stars winger has stepped into the lineup in place of Rich Peverley and been great, with 8 goals and 12 points in 26 games. He's exactly the sort of skilful but under-heralded role player that tends to explode in situations like this.
These two teams are a lot more evenly-matched than the standings would indicate, and I'm not sold on the Ducks for a number of reasons. First, they get outshot more often than not, with an even-strength Corsi below 50%. That never bodes well for teams in the postseason, and the fact that the Stars are actually one of the league's top possession teams doesn't bode well for Anaheim either.
Between that and the goaltending concerns in the Anaheim net, if Benn and Seguin can hold their own versus Perry and Getzlaf -- and I think they can -- I smell an upset here.
Stars in seven.