Thursday, April 28, 2016

Round two preview (Western Conference edition)

Oh hey, look who decided to show up.

Thanks to the NHL's annual tradition of always having that one series that drags on a few days longer than everyone else, the Western Conference is a bit late to the round two party. The East is already underway, with the Islanders beating the Lightning, 5-3, in Wednesday night's opener. We previewed the Eastern Conference yesterday.

Today it's on to the West, which suddenly looks wide open with the Blackhawks and Kings knocked out early.

Central Division

The champs are out, thanks to the St. Louis Blues and a pair of posts. That leaves the door open for some new blood in the conference final.

#1 Stars vs. #2 Blues

In this corner: The Dallas Stars (50-23-9, +37 true goals differential), the West's top seed and the league's most productive offense.

And in this corner: The St. Louis Blues (49-24-9, +22), moving on to the second round for just the second time in 14 years.

In round one: The Blues (barely) survived that seven-game war with the Blackhawks, while the Stars had more trouble than expected with the Wild in a six-game series.

Injury report: Dallas center Tyler Seguin's return to the lineup in the opening round lasted one game; his status for this series is unknown. The Blues are no doubt beaten up after the Blackhawks, but don't have any major names on the injury report.

Dominant narrative: Now that the Blues have knocked out the Hawks and at least temporarily slain their playoff demons, is this finally the year that it all comes together and they make a deep run? Despite decades of regular-season success, they've won just a single game past the second round since 1986.

The big question: Can the Stars win this way? Sure, winning 6-5 is all sorts of fun, and it can work in the regular season. But the playoffs are a different beast, we're told, and goaltending and defense are the keys to a Cup. The Stars don't have much of either, and it showed against the Wild. Dallas switched starting goaltenders twice, and might be doing it again to start this series after Kari Lehtonen's third-period meltdown nearly cost the Stars Game 6 in Minnesota. The Stars were still able to overpower the Wild, but it's hard to see them beating a complete team like the Blues without one of their goaltenders stepping up.

One player to watch: Vladimir Tarasenko. The saga of Tarasenko's ice time became a dominant storyline of the opening round, leading to what sure looked like a rift with coach Ken Hitchcock. He may be the most explosive player left in the Western bracket, but Tarasenko just doesn't see the ice as much as you'd expect, and when he does his shifts are kept remarkably short. Like most controversies, it's not a story as long as you're winning. But we know the Stars are going to score, and you wonder if the Blues will eventually have to let their top offensive weapon take the training wheels off.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

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