For the Dallas Stars, the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs ended less than 48 hours ago. As a result, a quick turnaround will be required as the Stars and Colorado Avalanche prepare to open second round play on Saturday night. It’s an important game for both teams that could set the tone for the series.
With the trade deadline passing and teams getting their final checks in before the homestretch of the 2019-20 season, the Stars and Avalanche seemed to be on a crash course for a first-round postseason matchup. The St. Louis Blues had put together a hot streak through the middle of the month, leaving Dallas and Colorado sitting second and third in the Central Division.
The standings held up until the NHL paused its season on March 12, which left everyone wondering if we would even see a Stanley Cup Playoffs in the year 2020.
Those questions have since been answered, teams are back in action and advancing in the postseason, and the Stars and Avalanche are gearing up to drop the puck in Game 1 of their series on Saturday night. And while this one will be a second-round series, it only raises the stakes in the long-anticipated matchup.
Dallas and Colorado will both wrap up an uncharacteristically quick break between series when they drop the puck at 7 p.m. CT on NBC tonight. The Stars won Game 6 to clinch their first-round series against the Calgary Flames around 11:30 p.m. MT (local time) in Edmonton on Thursday night, while the Avalanche ousted the Arizona Coyotes in Game 5 on Wednesday evening.
The quick turnaround means that the Stars, who took a mandatory team trip to the Edmonton CFL stadium on Friday for a mental break and recharge, didn’t get to have a full practice to prepare for Colorado prior to Game 1.
Even so, Rick Bowness knows that it was a beneficial day for the team.
“That was a much needed day away from the routine,” Bowness said on Saturday. “They had a great day. That changed the coaches’ plans because we had to prepare for tonight’s game, which as fine. But just for us, we were very happy that our players went out, had a great afternoon, got some fresh air, got some exercise, and had some fun. It was a good mental break and it was much needed.”
Saturday’s game will be the Stars’ eighth in 14 days. The time crunch is obvious and even baffling to an extent, but there’s no time to worry about it. And now, the focus rapidly shifts to Colorado.
“When we came into this bubble, we knew that you had to be ready to adjust to anything at any time,” Bowness said about the schedule. “I think that’s an example of it. Okay, that’s what it is and that’s when we’re playing, as the coaches, we just go into our pregame routine and get our meetings ready.
“We met with our players last night and try to get them focused on Colorado. You have to flip that switch pretty quick. We had our meetings last night, some more meetings this morning, talked to them, and helped get them refocused on Colorado. It’s a team we know well and they know us well. But that’s what you have to do.”
So, what can be expected of this series? What are the Avalanche bringing to the table? Will the Stars be ready to dive right back in after such a short intermission between series?
The Stars claimed the first two playoff series against the Avalanche in franchise history, winning both the 1999 and 2000 Western Conference Finals in seven games. Colorado responded a few years later, claiming the 2004 and 2006 Western Conference quarterfinals. Though it’s been a while since the two have met in a postseason setting, the thrill and memories are still present.
The bottom line is that, much like back in February and early March, this matchup has all the makings of a great and highly entertaining series.
The Avalanche seemingly brought their regular season success into the bubble in Edmonton, posting a 6-1-1 record through their first eight games (including round-robin games and the first round). That includes leading the NHL in scoring (3.88 goals per game), goals against per game (1.63), power play success (30.6 percent), and shots against per game (24.1).
“It’s a tough job. We all know how talented he is. I don’t think you’re going to find a more explosive player in the League and a guy that really makes things happen from nothing and makes things happen even when you’re in his end. He’s that fast and explosive where he gets up the ice fast. His transition game, between him and [Connor] McDavid, is the best in the League. It’s gotta be a committee. I think it has to be five guys on the ice that are aware of where he is and what he’s doing. You have to be able to slow him down at times. He’s going to get his chances and he’s going to have his looks. I think he’s just that good of a player where it’s going to happen, like a McDavid. But when you’re on the ice with the four other guys, you have to do it in a way where you’re supporting each other, you’re communicating, and you’re backing each other up when there are breakdowns. You do your best that way.” – Stars forward Andrew Cogliano on defending Nathan MacKinnon
Hart Trophy candidate Nathan MacKinnon continues to be an overwhelming threat in the offensive zone and is tied for the NHL lead in postseason points with 13 (four goals, nine assists). Nazem Kadri rounds out a perfect one-two punch on the second line behind MacKinnon with 11 points (six goals, five assists).
In the backend, defenseman Cale Makar (a 2020 Calder Trophy finalist) continues to shine in all three zones. He leads the Avalanche in plus/minus rating with a plus-9 and has two goals and five assists through eight games.
Only two players (Ian Cole and Valeri Nichushkin) on the Avalanche roster have yet to tally a point in the postseason so far. Their offense is firing on all cylinders, the defense is locking down the zone and limiting chances, and Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz both own a sub-1.50 goals-against average and save percentage over .935 in the postseason.
The Avalanche certainly look like a Stanley Cup contender right now. They are a fast and young team that can score at will (including 14 total goals in their final two games against Arizona in round one), limit and neutralize opposing attacks, and take advantage in the special teams game.
But at the same time, they look similar (albeit, healthier) to how they did during the regular season.
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“Nothing really,” Bowness said when asked if he noticed any changes in the Avalanche from the regular season. “What we saw during the regular season and what we saw when we took more time and broke down their team, there was nothing new. They’re a highly-skilled team. They’ve got some great players and elite players over there. They’re fast, they’re young, and they come at you in waves.
“So, did we see anything new or different? No, we didn’t. Different teams play different teams different ways, so you watch that as well in the pre-scout. Not only what Colorado is doing, but what’s being done against them in terms of special teams, five-on-five, face-offs, all of those game situations. We take a close look at that and we’ll be prepared for what we’re going to see tonight.”
At the other end, the Dallas Stars seem to have found a new gear of their own over the past few games. They were the better team in their opening series against the Calgary Flames, and proved it through their play on a nightly basis.
Their offense came alive, scoring 21 goals across six games and getting contributions from all four lines. Joe Pavelski had his first career playoff hat trick to help the Stars tie and eventually win Game 4. Denis Gurianov became the second rookie in NHL history to record four goals in a playoff game with a five-point performance in Game 6. Miro Heiskanen (who is second in postseason points in the League with 12) and John Klingberg both averaged over 24 minutes of ice time per game and were brilliant as they joined the Dallas scoring attack and limited Calgary’s offensive impact.
The defense was unnaturally shaky at times, but still managed to neutralize the Flames’ top line and dominate possession and scoring chances at 5-on-5. Eight of Calgary’s 17 goals came on the power play or penalty kill, and their attack seemed less and less fluid with each passing game. Anton Khudobin, who won the first playoff series of his career, also got better and looked more comfortable as the series shifted closer to an end.
The Stars also activated their resilience, much like they did during the 2019-20 season, throughout the series. Jamie Oleksiak scored the game-winning goal in Game 2 with 40 seconds left in regulation. Pavelski’s hat trick goal found the back of the net with 12 seconds remaining to tie Game 4 and send it to overtime. And when the Stars fell down 3-0 just 6:34 into Game 6, they managed to push all of the right buttons and flip the script on Calgary in an eventual 7-3 win.
Both teams are entering this series with a solid dose of momentum and something to prove. There’s history between the two teams, both in the long-term and in the recent past.
“Playing those guys plenty during the season, you kind of learn their tendencies and develop a bit of a rivalry there. I think overall, we’re kind of focusing on our game and what gives us success. Obviously, they’ve got some guys that we need to be aware of. But if we stick to what we do best, we’ll find success with that.” – Jamie Oleksiak on playing the Avalanche
The Stars went 4-0-0 against the Avalanche during the regular season, though Colorado won the most recent matchup with a 4-0 blitzing in the round-robin. The regular season contests were played close, with two requiring extra time and all but one being decided by one goal. It’s also been over seven months since their last regular season meeting, so Game 1 will be a chance to get reacquainted.
Game 1 could also set the tone for the series. Both teams had a short break and are still riding the energy from the dominance they showed in their series-clinching games.
If the Avalanche come out swinging, deploy their depth properly, attack Dallas on the rush, and own the advantage in scoring chances, the Stars could find themselves playing from behind in the series pretty quickly.
But if the Stars can get some big saves from Khudobin, slow the game down, limit the impact of MacKinnon and the other Colorado superstars, and flip the offensive switch that they did during the Calgary series, they could gain the upper hand in the first game.
“[We have] a lot of respect for that team. It’s well-coached and their elite skill is a lot of fun to watch, honestly. It’s tough to defend, so we’ll have to be on our best in terms of team defense when they’re coming at us. Bend, but don’t break. I think that’s the one thing we did against them. The four [regular season] games are misleading because they outplayed us.
“Our goaltending was sensational against Colorado, but we didn’t break. We found ways to eke out wins, whether it was overtime or shootout or whatever it was. That’s kind of going to be our same mental approach. When they’re coming and they’re on top of their game, we’re going to bend a little. Just don’t break.”
It’s shaping up to be a thrilling second-round series between two of the best teams in the Western Conference, and Game 1 could provide a springboard to set the emotional intensity and grab an early advantage in the series.
It’s time for the showdown we’ve all been waiting for and expecting.