Stars win the race to the Western Conference finals: Keys to their rise, outlook for next matchup

NHL

The Dallas Stars outlasted the Colorado Avalanche in double overtime to advance to the Western Conference finals.

Next up for Dallas will be the winner of the Vancouver CanucksEdmonton Oilers series, which Vancouver leads 3-2.

Here’s a look at how the Stars got here and how they match up against either Vancouver or Edmonton.

Going farm-to-table has allowed the Stars to eat this postseason

Executives are always discussing the importance of trying to build a team through the draft and develop the sort of talent that can someday carry a franchise. The Stars have done just that recently, and this postseason has shown the value of taking such an approach.

Exactly how beneficial has the Stars’ model been? Eleven of the 21 players who’ve played at least four games for the club were drafted by the Stars. That’s tied with the Bruins for the most homegrown players to play at least one playoff game this postseason Their three top point leaders this postseason are homegrown talents — Miro Heiskanen, Wyatt Johnston and Jason Robertson — while four of their top five scorers were drafted by the club.

The same goes for the three players — Heiskanen, Thomas Harley and Esa Lindell — who lead them in average ice time. In fact, five of the six players who led the Stars in ice time during this playoff run were all drafted by the team — the lone exception being trade deadline acquisition Chris Tanev, who is fourth in minutes per game.

And then there’s goaltender Jake Oettinger whose performances have seen him post a 2.27 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage this postseason. Yes, there are key contributors who came over via free agency and trade, but this is a notably homegrown crew.


The young star who keeps burning bright

When Johnston scored 24 goals and 41 points as a rookie last season, it created the belief that the Stars might have something special. What Johnston has done throughout the 2023-24 season has further cemented that notion.

He broke out for 32 goals and 65 points in the regular season while averaging 17 minutes per game and playing all 82 of them. Then came the Stanley Cup playoffs, which has allowed Johnston to take an even bigger role as the Stars have now reached the Western Conference finals for a second straight season.

Johnston has paced the Stars with a team-high seven goals, while his 11 points are third on the team. His 20:10 of average ice time is top among Stars forwards and fifth on the team overall. In fact, he was the only Stars forward who averaged more than 20 minutes per game in the playoffs, with the next closest being Robertson at 19:05.


Even when they’ve lost, they’ve still made gains

Enough is in place to suggest the Stars have had arguably the hardest route of any team that will reach the conference final round this season.

It started when they beat the defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights in the first round before beating the 2022 champions Avalanche in Round 2. Facing the two most recent Cup champions allowed the Stars to showcase their ability to come back in the series. They initially opened the first round in an 0-2 series hole against the Golden Knights only to come back and win four of the next five games. Keep in mind, the Stars had lost their past six against the Golden Knights and nine of the past 11 prior to beating them in Game 3.

As for the Avalanche, the Stars watched a three-goal lead in Game 1 disappear and the Avs win in overtime. Since then, the Stars fended off a late Avs push to win Game 2, remaining patient during what was an offensive barrage in Game 3 before orchestrating one of their strongest offensive performances in Game 4. And after a loss in Game 5 to potentially close things out early, they rallied to seal the deal in Game 6.

This shows the strength of Dallas’ system, and its faith in it even when game results don’t go its way.


A not-so-false sense of security

Let’s just say that another hallmark of the Stars’ success is their ability to play the proverbial possum.

Perhaps the most bizarre detail about this iteration of the Stars’ ascension is their Game 1 struggles. Not only did they lose their respective Game 1s to the Golden Knights and Avalanche, but the Stars have lost six straight Game 1s as a whole. That said, they’ve won three of their past four series despite getting off to a slow start.

And if that’s not enough, how about having Peter DeBoer behind the bench, who is now 8-0 all time in Game 7, tied with Darryl Sutter for the most Game 7 wins by a coach in NHL history?


Regular season record vs. EDM: 2-0-1

Anyone that’s ever wanted to watch a penalty kill’s hopes and dreams die just needs to watch the Oilers’ power play this postseason. They lead the playoffs with a 46.7% success rate. Possessing one of the NHL’s most formidable power plays is one of the reasons why the Oilers are within striking distance of a second conference finals appearance in three years. Short-circuiting that power play is critical if this is the matchup for Dallas.

There is the possibility that the Stars could have solutions for how to deal with the Oilers on the extra-skater advantage. The first step in that plan is something that has served the Stars well this postseason: They don’t take many penalties. Entering Game 6, the Stars were the least-penalized squad of any team that made it to the second round, with just 66 penalty minutes. The next closest team was the Avalanche at 79 minutes.

On the whole, the Stars’ penalty kill is operating at 72.0%, which is worst among active teams. But what could help them against the Oilers is if they could find a way to replicate the success they had against the Avalanche’s power play going into Game 5. The Avs’ power play operated at a 37.5% success rate in the first round against the Winnipeg Jets. Game 1 saw the Avs score two power-play goals in their dramatic 4-3 overtime comeback victory. But then they had a stretch with no goals in eight power-play opportunities against the Stars.

And of course, having a goalie of Oettinger’s caliber helps out any penalty kill.


Regular season record vs. VAN: 2-1-0

The Stars are averaging exactly 3.00 goals per game while the Canucks are averaging 2.73 per game, the second fewest of the teams that are still in the playoffs. Those figures help reinforce the idea that the team that can either be the first to score three goals or the one who can consistently score three goals could have the edge.

Here’s why. Finding and continuing to trust the connection between their five-player defensive structure and goaltenders are how the Canucks and Stars have found success this postseason. Of the teams that were still alive heading into Friday night, the Stars have allowed the second-fewest goals per game (2.50) while the Canucks gave up the third-fewest (2.55).

And the other detail to consider is that both teams are quite comfortable with playing in tight contests. The Stars are 4-2 in this postseason in one-goal games, though their Games 2, 3 and 4 wins against the Avalanche saw them win by an average margin of three goals. As for the Canucks, all but two of their playoff games have been decided by a single goal, both of which came in the first two contests of their series against the Nashville Predators.

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