In Stanley Cup playoffs, puck stops here

By David Mullen

The Dallas Stars qualified for the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs in the last week of the season. Despite a final stretch against inferior teams, the Stars needed an epic collapse by the Nashville Predators in the final game of the season to secure the first Wild Card spot in the Western Conference and a series against the Pacific Division champion Calgary Flames.

Roope Lintz is one of the young Stars.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

When the Predators gave up five unanswered goals, losing 5-4 to the last place Phoenix Coyotes, Dallas avoided the high-powered Colorado Avalanche in the first round. The Stars had clinched a playoff spot in an unspectacular way with an overtime loss to Phoenix. 

It may not matter who this team plays. Chances of advancement are slim. 

Of the 16 teams that entered the first round of the playoffs, 13 of them had 100 points or more. The Stars were one of the three — all in the Western Conference — that did not notch the century mark in points. And while 98 points is normally impressive, this season’s point total is underwhelming. So is this team.

The Stars lack passion. They lack style. They lack grit. They are basically a one-line team; one that scores and three others that try to prevent the other team from scoring. Unlike so many other teams that battled through one of the NHL’s best season in years, the Stars lack swagger. 

As evidence in a 1-0 game one loss to the Flames on May 3, the Stars often start games uninspired, and then try to play with abandon late with the hope of getting back into the game. In the playoffs, teams are traditionally too good to collapse.   

For the first time in three seasons, NHL arenas will be packed. No games in empty rinks or imaginary bubbles. Old time hockey is back.  

It was a great season for Eastern Conference teams, and the NHL’s coveted media markets will be represented. When teams in New York, Toronto, Boston and Washington play well, the league’s brass smile from blue line to blue line. But only three teams from the Original Six made the playoffs (Detroit, Chicago and Montreal fell short) and it was a team from the south that set the pace.

Who says the only ice in Miami is found in a blender at the Clevelander?

The Florida Panthers won the Presidents’ Trophy with a 122-point regular season and scored a staggering 340 goals. They started out the season as hot as a South Beach party and never looked back. They still face a stiff challenge to win the Eastern Conference title, the first obstacle being Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. 

Metropolitan Division winner Carolina Hurricanes face the Boston Bruins. It is a battle of the No. 2 seed versus the No. 8 seed, which normally means a big advantage. But the Bruins were just nine points behind Carolina in the regular season, and Hurricanes goalie Frederik Andersen is out entering play. Boston is offensive minded, and this series could go Boston’s way.

The New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins face off in a battle of star players. Pittsburgh has Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin and the legendary Sidney Crosby, who will be 35 in August. The Rangers have Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Adam Fox and Chris Kreider. They should put on a Broadway-worthy show. As Crosby enters the twilight of his career, the Pens may have all the incentive they need.

And in a battle that is almost too good for the first round, the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning battle the new face of the league Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto is notorious for losing early in the playoffs and have not won a Stanley Cup since 1967, when fast food favourite (Canadian spelling) Tim Horton’s had four donut locations. “Timmies” now has nearly 5,000 stores. Toronto has no holes and rolls on.

It is persuasive to call the Minnesota Wild “upstart.” But I was at their first ever regular season game in St. Paul back in 2000. After 22 seasons, the Wild are almost “grizzled,” but not enough to overcome the St. Louis Blues. Even though the Blues enter the series without stable net minding, they traditionally excel in the playoffs. 

The Edmonton Oilers and NHL leading point scorer Connor McDavid will try to overpower the Los Angeles Kings, a balanced team that plays well together. Containing McDavid will be the Kings’ edict and may be too much to ask.

Despite Florida’s record, the best team this season has been Colorado. The Avalanche have so many offensive players, led by Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Nazem Kadri. Colorado’s core players are all in their mid- to late-20s and play like it. Nashville is in disarray. Colorado is an unstoppable scoring machine, evidenced by their 7-2 game one win on May 3. This is a mismatch.

This year’s version of the Dallas Stars enters the playoffs as they have so often recently. No one knows what to expect from this team. I expect an early exit.

Think of the great Stars teams of the past. Mike Modano and Brett Hull provided the spark. Sergei Zubov, Joe Nieuwendyk, Guy Carbooneau, Mike Keane and Pat Verbeek supplied a veteran mindset.  Jere Lehitinen, Jaime Langenbrunner and Darryl Sydor added youthful exuberance. Dariann Hatcher was a force in the crease. Ed Belfour was tenacious in goal.

While unfair to compare this year’s team to Dallas’ only Stanley Cup champion, the 2022 Stars need an edge. They seemed to get older, not better. Captain Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin’s best years are behind them. 

Joe Pavelski is 37. A young crew of players like Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz will get more playoff experience and be asked to lead the team in the future. It will be an offseason of change for Dallas, beginning — I predict — with a search for a new head coach.

At the end of a balanced and entertaining NHL season, Colorado and Toronto will emerge to contend for Lord Stanley’s Cup. The Avs will overwhelm the Maple Leaves and return them to Toronto, where they can savor a fine season over a cup of hot coffee and a box of “Timbits.” 

For the Stars, they will need to find a new recipe for success. This concoction has gone stale.