Every year, a team rides some nice percentages to a high finish that no one expected. Boston in 08/09, the Avs last season, it happens. This year, tonight’s opponent is the team that looks like it might be fortune’s darling.
That isn’t to imply that Dallas is bereft of talent or incapable of terrific play as much as I’m not quite convinced that they’d do much better than Colorado managed in last year’s post season. That’s still a ways off, of course, and in the here and now, they’re riding a lengthy hot streak to the top of the Pacific and a high seed.
I normally start these previews with a look at the opposition forwards, but for all the scoring that their top six musters, it’s really goaltending that makes this outfit tick. Kari Lehtonen, as I mentioned on the last occasion that these teams met, is a fine goalie with a history of sloth and being injury prone. He’s shown neither of those traits since arriving in Texas. His .934 EVSV% is the sort of number that his talent has hinted was possible, and he’s made it through the first 60 percent of the year without a major injury.
As a result, the Stars have posted a healthy goal differential despite being pretty roundly outshot. Lehtonen played in Dallas’ 4-2 win over the Oil, so it’s possible that the Flames might see the rejuvenated Andrew Raycroft, who’s posted an even gaudier .940 EVSV% in his 13 outings. Goalies that stop the puck. Sigh.
The Stars can finish, of course, with Brad Richards in the middle of a very nice season that will make him an even wealthier man soon enough. He’s on course for a career year in terms of points, but as good as he is, he’s really benefiting from a concerted effort on Marc Crawford’s part to give he, James Neal and Loui Eriksson every advantage in terms of competition. The three of them are also riding the bounces. Richards has the lowest PDO of the trio at 104.9.
Beyond the vagaries of chance, this approach works for Crow because he has a few hard minutes players at his disposal. Mike Ribeiro is still the most likely center to face good players under duress, and the addition of Jamie Langenbrunner to the roster was a pretty shrewd play on Joe Nieuwendyk’s part to shore up his top six. Jamie Benn looks the heir apparent to Ribeiro in terms of tough minutes down the line, and he’s hardly made a misstep since making the team out of the Dub last season. The contrast between his sure-footed arrival in the league and the play of his Rockets teammate on the Flames’ roster, well, sigh, part two.
If the Stars have a clear deficiency, it’s still on the blue. Robidas, Daley and Grossman are pretty decent back there, but after those three the fall off is quite abrupt in terms of ability, and it’s the one spot where Dallas could use one more guy. If they could extract someone like Chris Phillips for a reasonable price, that might be enough to get them past the first round, and after that, who knows?
When these teams met in December, the Flames played about as good a game as they’re capable of, winning in a shootout and badly outchancing the Stars along the way. The recent shellacking that Calgary took from Minny has soured most people on the club, with good reason, and the Flames looked so completely defeated after Wednesday that I suspect most would write this game off. If the Flames have a sniff, it’ll be because of good work by the bottom six, a better night from Iggy et al, and maybe, just maybe, a save or two from whoever Sutter puts in net.