The first round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs would be in full swing right now. And while the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche seemed to be on a crash course to face each other, we may never see the matchup play out. But had the two squared off, the entertainment value would have been high.
It was around this time one year ago that the seemingly impossible became possible when the Columbus Blue Jackets swept the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Lightning, fresh off of a franchise-best 62-win season that tied the NHL record, 128 points, a goals for average of 3.89, and a President’s Trophy, entered the postseason as the one seed by a comfortable margin. They drew the Blue Jackets, a team that made a number of moves at the Trade Deadline but didn’t secure the second wild card spot until the final week of the season, as their first round opponent and seemed to be set up nicely for a deep run to the Final.
But a deep run didn’t happen. After taking a 3-0 lead into first intermission of Game 1 on home ice, the Lightning surrendered four unanswered goals to Columbus and unexpectedly dropped the opening game of the series.
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That loss morphed into three more as the Blue Jackets quickly took control of the series, outscoring the top-seeded Lightning 15-5 in the final three games to complete the first round one sweep of a President’s Trophy winner in League history.
It was a shocking moment, and one that was greeted with joy and amazement by most hockey fans and followers outside of the state of Florida. Chaos had erupted, the unexpected had happened, and the road to the Stanley Cup seemed more wide open than ever before with the top dog sent home early.
The upset was a reminder of just what makes the Stanley Cup Playoffs so unique when compared to other postseasons in professional sports: they’re more unpredictable, more improbable, and simply more fun.
But that reminder is nothing more than a sobering thought right now.
It’s been 36 days since the sports world as we knew it came to a halt as each pro, minor, and college league either paused, suspended, delayed, or cancelled their respective seasons due to growing concerns regarding the coronavirus pandemic. That means we’ve now lived through more than five weeks without any sports action.
Over that timeframe, we’ve missed out on a couple of monumental traditions, including Opening Day in the MLB, March Madness in the NCAA, and the beginning of the postseason in the NHL and NBA. And while there are bigger things afoot in our world at the moment and it’s up to all of us to stay safe and healthy and do our part to flatten the curve, it doesn’t make the absence of sports any easier.
And, like many other NHL teams, it’s a tough realization for the Dallas Stars.
That’s because prior to the March 12 pause, the 2019-20 Stars had already been on a crazy enough rollercoaster. With a 1-7-1 start, 13-1-1 rebound, the unexpected firing of head coach Jim Montgomery, hosting the 2020 Winter Classic, the return of Stephen Johns, a 9-3-3 showing in February, and a six-game losing skid to carry them into the stoppage, Dallas had arguably already experienced enough ups and downs for 2-3 regular seasons in 69 games. The pause for the pandemic was simply another baffling twist in an already knotted season.
But when the season halted, the Stars were in a good spot. They had bounced back from a rough first month of the season and had clawed their way into the top three in the Central Division for all of 2020. At the time of the pause, they sat third in the division at 37-24-8 with 82 points. They were four points ahead of the Nashville Predators, who sat in the second wild card spot, and 12 points behind the St. Louis Blues, who were first in the Western Conference.
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It also had them 10 points behind the Colorado Avalanche for second place in the division. And while three weeks separated the NHL from the end of the regular season at the time and there was plenty of room for shuffling in the standings, Dallas and Colorado seemed to be on a crash course to meet each other in round one.
Though the Winnipeg Jets and Predators were in pursuit and the Stars had been on a losing skid, they had held the second and third spots in the Central for over a month, making a first-round showdown look all the more inevitable.
And while it’s now uncertain whether the two will meet up in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs or if the postseason itself will even be played out, it’s safe to say that the entertainment value of a Stars-Avalanche playoff series would be hard to beat.
The two teams have a history when it comes to playing each other in the postseason, but they were also crafting a unique storyline throughout the 2019-20 season.
The playoff history is clear cut. In the 1999 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the two clubs duked it out in a seven-game series in the Western Conference Finals. The Dallas Stars eventually rallied from a 3-2 series deficit and claimed Game 7 on home ice to advance to the Stanley Cup Final (and we all know what happened from there).
One year later, they collided in the 2000 Western Conference Finals and played out another thrilling seven-game set, with the Stars once again claiming Game 7 on home ice.
After a few seasons of separation, the Avalanche scored their share of payback by defeating the Stars in five games in the first round of the 2004 and 2006 playoffs. A rivalry was built up between two Western Conference powerhouses over that seven-year span and helped set the stage for some enticing hockey when the two teams joined the Central Division in 2013.
Since then, however, the canvas is blank. It’s been 14 years since the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche squared off in a playoff series, and that’s been due to a few different reasons. For one, the Stars endured a five-year playoff drought. By another note, the Avalanche had two separate three-year hiatuses from postseason action.
But that made the thought of a first-round matchup all the more enticing. Longtime fans and followers of the Stars could reignite the flames that made the late 1990’s and early 2000’s so thrilling, while newer fans and followers had plenty to play off of in the four-game series between Dallas and Colorado from the 2019-20 season.
Remember that season series? While it may seem like an eternity ago when you consider the five-week pause and the fact that the Stars and Avalanche played their final game against each other on Jan. 14, the series still seems fresh in a way.
Perhaps it’s because the two clubs seemed destined to square off in round one. Maybe it’s because the four games between the two provided a strong springboard into a spirited postseason matchup. Or perhaps it’s because the two seemed to match up so well against each other.
The Dallas Stars went 4-0-0 against Colorado this season. Meanwhile, the Avalanche pulled a point from two games to finish 0-2-2. Winning all four games against a divisional opponent brings a heavy dose of confidence for any team, so Dallas owned an advantage in that department.
But the Avalanche are no stranger to the postseason and play a style that can overwhelm any team if they aren’t careful. Don’t forget that they defeated the Calgary Flames (who finished first in the Western Conference) in five games in round one last season.
Colorado owns one of the most potent offenses in the NHL, averaging 3.37 goals per game (fourth-best in the League). That’s a far cry from the Stars’ 2.58 goals per game.
Well, excelling on offense has to come at the expense of their defense, right?
Not so much. The Avalanche also own the sixth-lowest goals against per game in the NHL at 2.71. That’s just a shade under the Stars who sit second at 2.52.
Colorado’s top line of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen is one of the most feared in the NHL, and for good reason. They use a combination of speed, skill, and puck possession to generate scoring chances, fray the defense, and ultimately put the puck in the back of the net. The trio had already combined for 75 goals and 178 points at the time of the pause, and that was with Landeskog missing 16 games and Rantanen missing 28 games due to various injuries throughout the year.
Mile High Sticking
Had the schedule played out as it was supposed to, Rantanen likely would have rejoined the trio following a shoulder injury and been on the ice for Game 1 of the playoffs. So, the Avalanche seemed to own the offensive proficiency.
And yet, that didn’t seem to phase the Dallas Stars. Not only had they swept Colorado in the season series, but they had also held them to just six total goals while scoring 12 of their own. Perhaps that’s a testament to the strength of the Stars’ defensive style and goaltending duo. While the Avalanche may have seemed like the stronger team on paper due to their offensive power, it played out in a much different way on the ice.
And while Dallas can thank their defensive structure, the efforts of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin cannot be understated. While the duo took center stage for the second straight season and gave the Stars a chance to win on a nightly basis, they were on a different level against the Avalanche. In four games against Colorado, Bishop (three starts, 118 saves on 123 shots) and Khudobin (one start, 38 saves on 39 shots) combined to post a .963 save percentage. They were tested often by the Avalanche’s scoring attack in each matchup, but stood tall and put the Stars in a position to push back.
The Dallas Stars also received impressive efforts from a handful of players in the season series against Colorado. Roope Hintz (2 G, 2 A in 3 GP), Denis Gurianov (2 G, 1 A in 4 GP), Jason Dickinson (2 G in 4 GP), and John Klingberg (4 A in 4 GP) were valuable in each game against the Avalanche and found ways to contribute in each win. The thought of Hintz, Dickinson, and Gurianov potentially being on the same line come Game 1 of the playoffs was enthralling.
To top it all off, the final game of the season series on Jan. 14 in Denver included all of the important elements of a good seasonal rivalry. The Avalanche dominated the opening period and created a 2-0 lead with a 16-4 shots on goal advantage. It was another chapter in a novel of slow starts for the Stars in the previous month. To their credit, though, they had found a way to rebound from almost every one of them.
They found yet another way in the final 40 minutes of regulation when Gurianov scored a power-play goal in the second period and Jason Dickinson added the tying marker late in the third. In the other end, Bishop turned aside all 27 shots against and helped Dallas bring the game back to level. From there, it took 1:54 of overtime before Esa Lindell scored off of an offensive zone draw to complete the season sweep.
The momentum tilted. Jamie Benn and Matt Calvert fought after a few minutes of brewing tension. Benn cupped his ear for the Avalanche crowd after hearing boos and being put on the Jumbotron. The Stars had a goal disallowed but didn’t slow down. There was exciting overtime action. Following the game, Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar accused the Stars of cheating in the face-off dot.
The final matchup between the two had all the makings of a game that would set up a thrilling playoff series. And when you consider the advantages and disadvantages that each team had when matched against each other, a playoff series seemed almost too good to be true.
Unfortunately, it might be now. While the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche could be in the thick of a first round matchup today, there are more pressing matters to focus on and deal with first. It’s imperative that we all continue to stick together and use each other to get through this pandemic so we can return to a familiar state of normalcy sooner rather than later. That way, when sports come back, we’ll be able to greet them with a clear and excited conscience.
So, the extent of the two meeting up in the Stanley Cup Playoffs will have to be through in virtual simulators or NHL 20 for the time being.
Still, it can be fun to think about what might have been. Stay safe and healthy, everyone.