Opening bands are something every concert-goer has a love-hate relationship with. On one hand, there’s always the hope that this opener could put on a memorable set and become something you listen to regularly but more times than not, you’re just waiting for the main act to come on. This final first round series between the Minnesota Wild and the Dallas Stars felt like an “opening act” to the second round for me. I didn’t watch a lot of it in real time and from the games I did see, it looked like a pretty big mismatch even though it went to six games. Dallas was clearly the better team on paper and Minnesota kind of limped into the final playoff spot in the West, losing their last five games and finishing nine points behind the next closest wild card team (Nashville). On top of that, they were missing their leading goal-scorer in Zach Parise and 18-goal man Thomas Vanek so the deck was even more stacked against them.
From afar, Minnesota looked like they were in over their heads and that this series would be pretty uninteresting. Now that I’ve tracked all six games do I feel the same way? Somewhat. Like most playoff matchups, this ended up being more competitive than I thought and Minnesota had a couple of games where they gave the Stars problems, but Dallas never lost control of this series. That said, the games ended up being more interesting and there’s some things we can dive into when looking at this series as a whole.
Under The Microscope: Dallas Stars vs. Minnesota Wild
5v5 Shot Stats
Again, Dallas was in control of this series from the get-go. Minnesota did outplay them in Game 3 and made things interesting in Game 6, but Dallas ran over them on the shot counter for the majority of the series. Things look a little more even when looking at just scoring chances, as the Wild weren’t too far behind in this department. Defending is one thing the Wild have been known for almost as long as they’ve been around and limiting quality chances is one thing they do reasonably well. This reigned true against Dallas, as they protected the slot area reasonably well and allowed goaltender Devan Dubnyk to get to loose pucks before the Stars could. They also forced Dallas to shoot the puck from low-percentage areas and blocked a lot of shots, so the chance count ended up being relatively even.
Playing good defense is important, but it didn’t lead to much success for the Wild because they spent most of the series without the puck. They averaged only 39 five-on-five shot attempts per game all series and relied on their defense & Devan Dubnyk to keep these games close. Dallas had some of their own problems with defense & goaltending, so this strategy worked in Minnesota’s favor for a couple of games, but the sheer volume of shots they were giving up eventually caught up to them. With the Wild’s injuries, they probably weren’t going to win a series where they tried to outscore Dallas, even with the Stars missing Tyler Seguin, but Minnesota’s overall offensive output was nowhere near good enough. Also worth noting that even with the Wild limiting the Stars chances, Dallas still outscored them 17-12 at five-on-five.
5v5 Zone Entries
Revisiting the graph from earlier, you’ll notice that both teams created the majority of their shots off carry-ins, but the percentage Dallas relied on this for offense is much lower than any other team we’ve looked at in the playoffs so far. It’s a little surprising because Dallas is known for being a quick team that can burn you in transition, so you’d expect them to create most of their offense that way. While that remained true, they also had success when it came to creating shots off dump-ins, at least compared to other teams we’ve looked at. Turnovers were also a big factor for both teams. This is largely because this series ended up being a battle of dump-and-chase. It’s a little shocking given both rosters, but the numbers don’t lie.
Minnesota’s game-plan was basically to limit Dallas as much as possible and a big part of that is not letting them burn you through the neutral zone. They managed to do that part, forcing the Stars to dump the puck in on the majority of their entries and they did a poor job at everything else. Dallas is at their best when they are skating the puck through the neutral zone, but they are a malleable bunch and can make adjustments when they need to. In this instance, when they had to dump the puck in, they used their speed to either beat the Wild to the puck or thwart their breakout attempts by forcing turnovers on the forecheck. They didn’t see as much of a reward from this compared to when they were able to carry the puck, but they were miles ahead of the Wild in this regard.
On the counter-attack, saying that Minnesota could have done better would be an understatement and a half. The lowest percentage of their shot attempts came after they dumped the puck in and that was their preferred method of entering Dallas’ zone. As a result, they created little to no offense on zone entries and it’s too bad because they actually did burn the Stars in transition a few times. Some of that was a domino effect of the Stars forecheck disrupting their breakouts and making it hell for them to get up the ice cleanly, but dumping the puck in seemed like a planned approach for the Wild. Their options were pretty limited because they couldn’t exit the zone as a group and didn’t have much support when entering the zone either, which led to a lot of one-man forechecks and undermanned rushes that died shortly after they crossed the blue line.
The Wild did generate offense when they carried the puck in, but they weren’t able to do it much all series and, so their neutral zone play yielded minimal results and the only time they could generate anything was off faceoffs or when the Stars gave them the puck in their own zone. All of that is a perfect recipe for getting outshot.
Minnesota Wild Zone Entries
As one can probably guess, the Wild didn’t have a lot of players who carried the puck in on the majority of their entries. Coyle and Niederreiter were the only regular forwards who fit into this category and the latter was arguably the Wild’s best forward when it came to neutral zone play. He had the puck most on his line with Pominville & Haula and the Wild were generating a lot of offense when he got the puck into the zone. The coaching staff seemed to give Niederreiter more freedom to handle the puck & make plays at the blue line and it was deserved, as he was a major catalyst for the Wild’s offense. Unsurprisingly, this line ended up being the Wild’s best in terms of shot differential.
Charlie Coyle was the other regular forward with a high carry-in rate and his line with Jason Zucker and Justin Fontaine ended up being underwater in terms of shot differential despite that. Some of that is due to him not being the primary puck-handler on his line. That player ended up being Jason Zucker and he was kind of a black hole when it came to offense. The Wild leaned on him to get the puck into Dallas territory and created virtually no offense on his entries. They had more success when Zucker carried it in, but he dumped the puck in 69% of the time, so that ended up being a wash. The line got a bit of spark when Jordan Schroeder replaced Justin Fontaine in Game 5 and it’s pretty easy to see why here.
The Wild’s first line of Granlund, Koivu & Jones also ended up being very dump-heavy with Jones & Granlund sharing most of the burden on zone entries. Jones only carried the puck in four times all series, so his shot per entry numbers are a tad misleading, but his role was pretty obvious. However, the Wild had much more success when Granlund & Koivu were carrying the puck in as opposed to getting it deep. The results are such a mixed bag for all three players that it’s hard to determine anything, but it’s a little odd that the Wild even had their best players dumping the puck in so much. Most teams tend to give their top players more freedom here, but Granlund & Koivu stuck to the system for the most part. Not having Parise in the lineup probably influenced things to an extent.
The defense didn’t have much of a role in the neutral zone, as their role was mostly restricted to getting the puck to their forwards instead of jumping into the play on their own. As a result, their carry-ins rates are skewed by a small sample of entries to work with and Jared Spurgeon was the only defenseman who had a decent role in the neutral zone. Their blue liners seemed to have the greenlight to carry the puck in when they were given the rare opportunity, though.
Dallas Stars Zone Entries
Like Minnesota, Dallas let their forwards handle most of the puck handling duties. Unlike Minnesota, Dallas had their best forwards carry the puck in on the majority of their entries. They had some major ground to cover with Tyler Seguin out of the lineup and while Cody Eakin didn’t have an impressive series in his place, Jason Spezza helped make up for it. Dallas might have been forced to play dump-and-chase for most of the series, but they did burn the Wild in the transition game and Spezza, Benn & Sharp were a huge part of that. Sharp in particular had a large role in the neutral zone and he seemed to thrive in it, finding gaps in the defense and creating space for himself to generate a few odd-man rushes.
Another player who did well in the neutral zone was Ales Hemsky, who was one of the Stars best forwards this series. His line with Antoine Roussel & Radek Faksa gave the Wild problems regardless of how they got the puck into the zone, but their speed was very effective when it came to the transition game & Hemsky’s creativity led to them creating a lot of chances after they got the puck in. Faksa also had an impressive showing here in a smaller role. Also worth noting that all three players posted higher a higher shot per dump-in rate than the team average. Recovering dump-ins and forcing turnovers was one area where Dallas’ speed was a factor and something that gave the Wild all sorts of problems. Faksa’s line in particular was very good at it.
Faksa, Hemsky & Roussel recovered a combined 25 dump-ins and when you consider that they dumped the puck in 36 times as a trio, it’s pretty easy to see why Dallas was able to win the shot battle against Minnesota despite being forced to dump the puck in so often. Now, this isn’t counting the times the defensemen dumped the puck in while this line was on the ice, but the 25 recoveries are still impressive. The ability to recover the puck wasn’t just limited to this line, though as Eakin, Benn & Fiddler all posted strong numbers but Hemsky, Faksa & Roussel seemed to be the best when it came to generating shots off them. Getting the better end of the matchups on the third line played a factor too as they saw more of Dumba & Brodin than Suter & Spurgeon.
Minnesota Wild Passes
The Wild had their problems with entering the offensive zone but once they got the puck there, Granlund was their main standout. Moving to Koivu’s wing in Game 2 helped him a lot, as he seemed to have an easier time creating plays from the wall and finding open ice with Koivu driving the center lane. He ended up leading the Wild in shot attempts, shots on goal, scoring chances and primary passes. Adding to that, he was tied for the team lead in shots without an assist with ten, so he was able to create on his own if a play wasn’t available. It was easily the most impressive I’ve been from him at the NHL level and he should have had more than three points in six games. With Koivu taking on more of a shooting role this series & Jones being a net-front guy, Granlund had a lot of room to roam around the offensive zone and he certainly made the most of it. Hopefully for the Wild it’s a sign of things to come.
Another change the Wild made after Game 1 was getting Erik Haula back in the lineup and you can tell here that he gave them a jolt. His line with Niederreiter & Pominville was easily the Wild’s best all series and Haula acted as the main shooter. Pominville’s performed well as a set-up guy and Niederreiter did a little of everything, although I thought he would end up with more shots & passes relative to his ice time given how often he had the puck.
Outside of about five players, the Wild’s forwards struggled to consistently generate offense. Coyle was the only player in their bottom-six who did much of anything and most of that was due to his work as a shooter. He also started the series on Koivu’s line before being replaced with David Jones. Jordan Schroeder is another guy who was productive with his ice time, but he only played two games so his impact ended up being limited. It’s too bad because the third line could have used him with how quiet Zucker & Fontaine were. The fourth line ended up being a wasteland regardless of who played there.
The Wild’s defense was slightly more active here than they were in the neutral zone and once again, the standout is Jared Spurgeon, who had more passes than anyone else on the team and tied Granlund for the lead in primary shot assists. Him and Suter had a pretty respectable series (at least compared to the rest of Minnesota’s defense) and Spurgeon’s offense helped carry this pairing. The next most effective passer was surprisingly Nate Prosser and the top shooter ended up being Marco Scandella, both of whom had pretty terrible showings in every other facet, but most of that was due to poor defensive play. Brodin, on the other hand, had a very quiet series from a shot generation standpoint, not doing much at all in the neutral or offensive zones.
Dallas Stars Passes
You know a team had at least one player go off when they break the scale of your graph. That’s what Jamie Benn & Jason Spezza did here. Benn shined as a play-maker this series and was involved in over 40% of the shot attempts he was on the ice for at five-on-five. All while missing his top-center for most of the series, too. He was still able to make due with setting up Patrick Sharp for scoring chances in the offensive zone and hitting him with a few stretch passes that led to breakaways, as well. Spezza, meanwhile, was the team’s main shooter and he seemed to thrive in that role while showing good chemistry with Mattias Janmark on his wing.
What stands out to me with Dallas is there’s very few guys who I’d classify as “passengers” on their line, in the sense that they’re each doing something to help out with the offense. Sure, no one is as good as Benn or Spezza at what they do, but each player seemed to have a role. Eaves, Sharp & Sceviour acted as shooters on their lines while Janmark, Nichushkin & Hemsky did very well as play-makers. You could argue that Hemsky did well at both. Then you have someone like Radek Faksa who did a little of everything well, even if it wasn’t in the same volume as the rest of his teammates. Even some of the lower event guys (Eakin, Roussel & Fiddler) did okay as play-makers.
The defense is a little different because no one here in particular stood out as a passer with the exception of Alex Goligoski. The Stars had more of a “shoot-first” mentality in the offensive zone with the Wild trying to take away the slot and some of their defensemen decided to join the fun. Klingberg, Johns & Oduya in particular racked up a decent number of shots. The Oduya-Johns pair seemed to play this style the most while Goligoski & Klingberg mixed things up a little with Goligoski being more active as a play-maker. It’s a little interesting because one would expect Klingberg to be the better passer, but he opted to shoot more times than not and Goligoski ended up with more primary assists. Demers & Russell find themselves on the lower end of the spectrum with Demers proving most of the offense and Russell not doing much of anything.
The Final Word
This is a clear-cut case of one team being flat-out better than the other. The Wild did what they could to try and slow down the Stars and while they might have had the advantage in goaltending, they didn’t have an answer for Jamie Benn or Jason Spezza. The closest thing they had to a game-breaker was Granlund and he didn’t put up a lot of points, despite playing very well for five out of the six games. They did give the Stars a bit of a scare, but they were playing catch-up all series and the better team eventually won.