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Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: 11 keys to victory in Blues vs. Stars

(Ed. Note: Welcome to Round 2 coverage of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, where we flip the format and get right to the point with 11 keys to each series. Enjoy!) 

1. Tyler Seguin’s presence 

After missing a month with a sliced Achilles, Seguin returned for Game 2 against the Minnesota Wild before irritating something related his to injury. He hasn’t played since and it’s unknown when he’ll begin skating again. Should he return at some point during this series, will Lindy Ruff shelter him? How cautious will he be with Seguin’s minutes? GM Jim Nill said Seguin would need at least four or five days on the ice before returning to game action.

2. Vladimir Tarasenko’s ice time

The Russian sniper’s ice time in the final two games of Round 1 became an issue because the Blues were losing. Everyone seemed to forget that in Games 2-4 Tarasenko played 16:05, 16:33 and 15:14, respectively, which was down from the 18:38 he averaged during the regular season.

Of course you want your most dangerous offensive weapon out there when you need a goal. This, Hitchcock understands, as he explained the ice time drop was a situational thing. Considering who they're up against, Tarasenko probably won't be waiting too long to get the shoulder tap telling him it's time to hop over the boards.

3. Fight the power (play)

Both the Blues and Stars feature lethal power play units, ranking third (St. Louis, 27.8 percent) and fifth (Dallas, 21.1 percent) of the eight second-round teams. That’s a biggie considering both penalty kills weren’t great in Round 1. The Blues allowed six goals on 19 opportunities (68.4 percent), while the Stars gave up four on 16 chances (75 percent). St. Louis took the fourth-most minors last round (27). Dallas was a bit more disciplined taking only 17 minors. Special teams are vital to survive this time of year.

4. Contain the top lines

Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Jori Lehtera combined for 17 points in their seven-game series against the Chicago Blackhawks. They also recorded a quarter (52) of St. Louis’ total shots (205). Meanwhile, Jamie Benn, Cody Eakin and Patrick Sharp posted nine goals and 18 points in Round 1. Those six carried a big offensive load. Can their secondary scorers continue to contribute?

5. Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi… or both?

Antti Niemi began Round 1 on the bench and was given an opportunity in Games 4 and 5. He allowed seven goals in those two starts, winning one and losing one while posting an ugly .857 ESSV. Lehtonen finished the job with a .942 ESSV and will start the Blues series as Ruff’s No. 1. The pair split the workload during the regular season, but for now it looks like it's Lehtonen's job to lose... again.

6. Hold on to your lead

Both the Blues and Stars had some issues holding multi-goal leads in Round 1.. With each team entering the second round following strong offensively performances (Nos.1 and 2 in EV GF), getting a lead will mean withstanding a ton of pressure just to hold that lead. 

7. Coaching

Lindy Ruff vs. Ken Hitchcock. A rematch of the 1999 Stanley Cup Final which ended in controversial fashion and 2006 when their two sides met in the opening round. Combined the pair have 37 seasons of NHL coaching experience under their belts and 249 playoff games on their resumes. Old pals, there's not much unknown between the two, so this will be a series of finding new ways to gain an edge on the other.

Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images
8. Shot suppression

For all the talk this season about the Stars’ defense, they did a solid job limiting the Wild on the shot counter. Among all Round 1 teams Dallas posted a 45.3 Corsi Against/60 at even strength, best of the 16 teams that made the playoffs, according to War on Ice. St. Louis was among the highest with a 56.6 CA/60. The Blues averaged 29.3 shots per game against Chicago, and with a much dangerous arsenal than Minnesota presented, the Stars will have their hands full.

9. Slowing Jamie Benn

The Stars captain bookended Round 1 with three-point nights in Games 1 and 6, both Dallas victories. He had points in all six games and finished with four goals and 10 points. If John Tavares was the engine behind the New York Islanders in the first round, then Benn was just that for the Stars with a little help from Jason Spezza (four goals, nine points). He showed that even without Seguin he can carry Dallas forward. Will St. Louis have an answer for him?

10. Keeping possession

St. Louis (52.7 percent) and Dallas (52.6 percent) were sixth and seventh in score-adjusted Fenwick during the regular season. Those are strong possession numbers that help indicate future success. Those numbers changed, however, in Round 1 with the Stars (55.3 percent) improving and the Blues (46.2 percent) taking a dive.

St. Louis' dip may have had to do with Hitchcock's desire to get up to 70 hits a game against the Blackhawks, which is fine if you want to be chasing the puck for an entire game. Physicality is important, but the Blues know you don't want to be allowing an offense like the Stars to own the puck for extended periods of time.

11. Blues in 7

All four of these second-round match-ups are pretty much toss-ups. The Blues had to shut down a strong offense in Round 1 and now have to do the same against the best in the league during the regular season (265 goals). While the Blackhawks took advantage of their power play chances, Brian Elliott held them at even-strength, posting a .950 save percentage. Goaltending may very well be the difference in this series as these teams are closely matched. 



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