History has taught us not to believe in a team like the Dallas Stars.
The Stars led the NHL in scoring (3.23 goals per game) during the regular season, and ranked 19th in goals-against average (2.78). The disparity between the offensive and defensive performance levels is enough to plant seeds of doubt about their ability to be successful in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Chicago Blackhawks were No. 2 in goals-against when they won the Stanley Cup last season. The Los Angeles Kings were No. 1 when they won in 2014, and the Blackhawks were No. 1 when they won in 2013. Teams that win the Cup aren’t often ranked in the bottom half of the league in defense.
That’s why the Stars, despite finishing No. 2 overall in the standings, haven’t received much love in Las Vegas. Entering the playoffs, the Stars were 8-1 favorites, the same odds awarded to the Anaheim Ducks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Kings and Blackhawks.
It’s hard to have faith in a below-average defensive team winning a championship. According to war-on-ice.com, the Stars gave up the 11th-most scoring-chances against, and the fourth-most high-danger chances.
But the mistrust centers on the Stars’ goaltending. The tandem of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi had a combined save percentage of .904, which ranked 25th in the NHL.
Are the Stars’ numbers misleading, or have they made adjustments down the stretch and into the playoffs? They’ve given up one goal against the Minnesota Wild and lead the first-round series 2-0.
The Wild have been undermined by injuries to Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek. But the Stars look like a team that understands that it must reduce mistakes.
“I know our (goals-against) is a concern for people, but it isn’t a concern for us internally,” Jim Nills told USA TODAY Sports before the playoffs started.
The Stars tightened up defensively after Tyler Seguin went out with an injury March 17. (He returned for Game 2.) The Stars went 8-2-0 in their last 10 regular-season games, and gave up two or fewer goals in eight of those games. Their GAA was 1.90.
Including the playoffs, Lehtonen has won eight of his last nine starts. In those games, he has posted a .935 save percentage. He has stopped 47 of 48 shots in the playoffs.
The Stars look like they have the right mix on defense. Their acquisition of Johnny Oduya as a free agent in the offseason will pay greater dividends now. With three Stanley Cups on this resume, Oduya provides a calming influence on the blue line. Kris Russell, acquired at the trade deadline, has stabilized the defense. He’s a stay-at-home guy who blocks a lot of shots. These veterans have complemented the Stars’ fast-paced offense.
The Stars can look to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s blue print from last season when the Lightning were the highest-scoring team.
“Defense wins in every sport,” Nill said. “But good teams tighten up in the playoffs. By the time the Lightning got to the Finals, they were (comfortable) playing much tighter games.”
They can also draw on history. When the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006, they were the No. 3 offensive team and the No. 19 defensive team.
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