Bernie Miklasz: 5 Initial Observations on the Blues vs. Stars Playoff Matchup in Round Two

Hey there.  Five initial observations on the second-round Western Conference playoff matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars:

1. The top thing that stands out about the St. Louis vs. Dallas matchup is the excellence of the goaltenders.

You can make a strong statistical case that Ben Bishop (Dallas) and Jordan Binnington (STL) are the NHL’s hottest goalies right about now. That excludes goaltenders who played for teams that already have been eliminated from the Stanley Cup tournament.

The discussion would include others still competing in the playoffs including Robin Lehner (NY Islanders), Philipp Grubauer (Colorado), Frederik Andersen (Toronto) and Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus.)

During the regular season, among NHL goaltenders that logged at least 1,500 at 5-on-5 play, Binnington ranked No. 1 with a .941 save percentage. Bishop was No. 3 at .939. In goals-against average at 5-on-5, Binnington was first (1.51), and Bishop was second (1.86.) They were close in high-danger save percentage at 5-on-5, with Bishop ranking first (.878) and Binnington fifth (8.66.)

So in a tight series the goaltenders could go a long way in determining the outcome.

Bishop, 32, has more postseason experience during his career, posting a .930 save percentage in 42 starts. And Bishop has a postseason quality start percentage of .712.

The rookie Binnington, 25, has competed on one NHL postseason series, leading the Blues to a 4-2 triumph over Winnipeg.

Bishop — St. Louis native and former Blue — has been named one of the three finalists for the 2018-2019 Vezina Trophy, the award handed annually to the NHL’s best goaltender in a vote of the league general managers.

According to the Dallas Morning News, the Stars have a “slight edge” in goal over the Blues.

2. The teams took similar paths this season. Lots of injuries, dysfunction, and turmoil early in the regular season.

The Blues, an early-season flop, fired coach Mike Yeo after a 2-0 home loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Nov. 19. A demoralized, disorganized team was pulled together and repaired by interim head coach Craig Berube.

The Stars — underachieving before Christmas — made team CEO Jim Lites so angry that he went public in his withering criticism of star players Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.

Dallas had invested $154.8 million (combined) in new contracts for the two prominent forwards in recent years, and Lites was disgusted by their lack of competitiveness.

“What nobody says is what is completely obvious to me: We are getting terrible play from our top two players,” Lites said back on Dec. 28. “We pay these players to be the best players on our team, and they are consistently out-efforted and outperformed by everybody else’s best players.”

The Stars had a difficult time adjusting to first-year head coach Jim Montgomery, the former Blue who did away with the up-tempo, wide-open offensive circus and installed a more conservative defense-first system. Montgomery lashed out at this team, maligning their “culture of mediocrity.”

The coach benched top-line forward Alexander Radulov for (1) barking at the him during a game and (2) being late to a morning skate. At one point, Montgomery stopped a practice to tell the players he was “embarrassed” by their lax effort.

The Stars turned it around, going 23-16-3 after Jan. 1 to grab a wild-card playoff spot. That points percentage of .583 ranked 12th in the league since the start of the new calendar year.

The Stars’ resurgence, while impressive, couldn’t match the remarkable transformation of a troubled team in St. Louis. After Jan. 1 the Blues had a record of 30-10-5 in their final 45 regular-season games to compile the league’s No. 2 points percentage (.722) over that time.

After Dallas eliminated visiting Nashville with a 2-1 overtime victory on Monday night, Montgomery thoughtfully described his team’s passage.

“I think the journey through the year toughens you up hopefully and it definitely did for us,” Montgomery told reporters. “You have to face adversity to get better as a group especially when it’s your first time together. And we have. The trust has grown. The trust is players to players, players to coaches, coaches to players. It’s everyone. It’s fun to watch the development when you think back to Christmastime.”

That sounds familiar, eh?

Montgomery could have been speaking for Berube.

How similar are these teams?

From Feb. 24 through the conclusion of the regular season the Blues and Stars each played 21 games. Dallas went 13-6-2 for 28 points and a points percentage of .667. St. Louis went 12-5-4 for 28 points and a .667 points percentage.

3. Primary assignment for the Blues: cool down the Stars No. 1 line of Seguin, Benn and Radulov.

In ejecting the Predators from the first round in six games, here’s what the No. 1 Dallas line did when skating 5-on-5, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick:

Outscored Nashville 6-0.

Had a Corsi-For possession percentage of 56.6%.

Controlled 55.7 percent of the shots.

Had a 57.6 percent share of the scoring chances.

Dominated the hunt for those coveted high-danger scoring chances, coming up with 60 percent of the shots from the slot/crease areas.

 

The other Dallas lines aren’t nearly as formidable — though the trio of Blake Comeau, Radek Faksa and Andrew Cogliano played well in Monday’s Game 6 clincher that took Nashville out. And winger Mats Zuccarello, who mostly played on a line with Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz, had an impactful series with three goals and three assists vs. Nashville. This was an impressive comeback for Zuccarello, who was acquired by the Stars in a Feb. 23 deal with the NY Rangers. Zuccarello suffered a broken right arm in his first game with Dallas, and didn’t return to the lineup until the final regular season game.

4. A note for the Blues: stay out of the penalty box, because a lack of discipline hurt Nashville during the conflict with Dallas.

The Stars had 22 power-play opportunities in the series — seven more than the Predators. And Dallas won the special-teams test, scoring four power-play goals and killing all 15 of Nashville’s PP chances.

5. MoneyPuck gives the Blues a 59.2 percent chance to get past Dallas and into the third round.

The MoneyPuck analysis system really likes the Blues, who were given the best chance to win the Stanley Cup (14.1%) of any remaining team.

Why is that? It’s because of something that I’ve been pointing out for weeks on end: the Blues frequently dominant play at 5-on-5.

Take a look at these 5-on-5 metrics since Jan. 1:

Corsi For Percentage: Blues No. 7 in the NHL at 53.1 percent.  The Stars were rated No. 15 at 50.2%.

Controlling the largest share of shots on goal: The Blues were No. 1 at 54.6 percent; the Stars ranked No. 16 at 50%.

Share of all 5-on-5 goals scored:  Blues No. 1 in the league at 59.8 percent; the Stars 15th at 51.2%.

Share of scoring chances: Blues No. 4 in the league at 54.04 percent; the Stars No. 8 at 53.1%.

High-danger shots: Blues No. 1 in the league with a 58 percent share; the Stars were sixth at 54.4 percent.

When The Note struggled against Winnipeg during the first round, the problems were almost always centered on the Blues’ losing their edge at 5-on-5 play. That can’t happen in the matchup vs. Dallas.

The Blues have more scoring balance and depth, a deeper core on defense, and own the home-ice advantage. The goalies Bishop and Binnington will battle it out. The special teams loom as an important factor. But don’t forget: the Blues are at their best when they master the opponent at 5-on-5. It’s imperative to do so in this second-round showdown.

Thanks for reading …

-Bernie