2020 NHL playoffs: Avalanche-Stars series preview

The 2020 NHL playoffs roll on to the conference semifinals beginning on Aug. 22 with the Colorado Avalanche taking on the Dallas Stars.

The Avs defeated the Stars 4-0 in the round-robin portion of the postseason, but the Stars won all four matchups in the regular season (including one in overtime and one in a shootout). So will Nathan MacKinnon & Co. continue the offensive onslaught from their domination of the Coyotes, or have they met their match in the defensively sound Dallas bunch?

Note: Advanced stats are from Hockey Reference, Natural Stat Trick and Evolving Hockey

More: Check out the full NHL postseason schedule here.

What we learned in the quarterfinal round: The Stars passed a major character test in eliminating the Calgary Flames in six games. Sure, they got a break when Matthew Tkachuk was injured, thereby ripping the beating heart from out of the Flames’ chests. But it was a tightly played, at times brutal, series that culminated in a seven-goal Dallas rally after going down 3-0 in Game 6. They showed unexpectedly good offensive chops and only occasional hints at how good they can be defensively — although having No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop “unfit to play” for much of the series could have contributed to that.

The Avalanche? They were who we thought they were, owning their series against an overmatched Arizona Coyotes team that needed 49 saves from Darcy Kuemper to win one game. The final two games of the five-game series were an evisceration, with Colorado outscoring Arizona by a 14-2 margin. (Hey, at least the Cardinals got a safety.)

First line: Both teams reunited the most well-known versions of their top lines for the postseason. Nathan MacKinnon (4 goals, 9 assists), Gabriel Landeskog (8 assists) and Mikko Rantanen (3 goals, 7 assists) combined for six goals at 5-on-5 and didn’t give up any in eight games, with an expected goals-for advantage of 71.66%. That’s a trio that can take over games on their own, as Arizona discovered the hard way. Dallas loaded up with Tyler Seguin (3 assists), Alexander Radulov (2 goals, 1 assist) and Jamie Benn (2 goals, 2 assists) for seven games. They outscored opponents 4-1 and had an expected goals advantage of 54.89% at 5-on-5. They’re a talented trio. They are not, however, the MacKinnon line. Advantage: Avs

Forward depth: The Stars’ two leading goal-scorers in the playoffs are not found on their top line. Rookie Denis Gurianov has six goals, four of them coming in that Game 6 rally, while playoff hero Joe Pavelski has six of his own. They’ve skated with Mattias Janmark and Joel Kiviranta. Roope Hintz, who has struggled at times, has a line with Jason Dickinson and the always entertaining Corey Perry. Radek Faksa, Andrew Cogliano and Blake Comeau are an effective checking line. The Avalanche invested in their depth last summer, and it has paid off: Center Nazem Kadri has six goals and five assists for 11 points, second on the team. He has seen time with Andre Burakovsky (8 points) and Joonas Donskoi (6 points), both of whom were added last summer. Matt Calvert, Matt Nieto and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare are a solid checking line. J.T. Compher, Tyson Jost and the resurgent defensive ace Valeri Nichushkin are also in the mix. Advantage: Tie

Defense: This series features two of the best young defensemen in the NHL, who were taken in consecutive spots in the 2017 NHL draft. The Stars’ Miro Heiskanen (3rd overall) leads the team with 12 points for the postseason and plays 26:06 on average with partner Jamie Oleksiak; the Avs’ Cale Makar (4th overall) has seven points, and is averaging 21:42 per game with partner Ryan Graves. But Dallas has another star blueliner beyond Heiskanen in John Klingberg, who has seven points in the postseason and forms an effective duo with Esa Lindell. Andrej Sekera and Taylor Fedun round it out, while Stephen Johns has been “unfit to play” for five games. Colorado’s defensive depth includes Erik Johnson, Samuel Girard, Ian Cole and the well-dressed Nikita Zadorov. All of their pairings have played well at 5-on-5. Advantage: Stars

Goaltending: Bishop won Game 2 for Dallas, but it was Anton Khudobin (.919 save percentage) who started the rest of them against Calgary while Bishop was sidelined. Something’s off, as Bishop gave up four goals in each of his two appearances in the postseason. Colorado had one of the best goalie tandems in the NHL with Philipp Grubauer (.937 save percentage in the playoffs) and Pavel Francouz (.958), and nothing has happened to change that perception. With Bishop not quite Bishop at the moment, the Avalanche get the nod. Advantage: Avs

Coaching: Dallas interim coach Rick Bowness is the third coach in NHL history to win a playoff series at age 65 or older. His work hasn’t been without criticism — like his sheltered usage of the explosive Denis Gurianov — but he helped guide the Stars to a tough series win. Avalanche coach Jared Bednar has a very good sense of how this roster pieces together, is a steady presence behind the bench and is a tad underrated if we’re being honest. Advantage: Avs

Special teams: Colorado was 19th on the power play in the regular season, mostly because of injuries. Now healthy, they’re on an absolute heater: They’ve posted a 30.6% conversion rate, best in the playoffs through eight games. Dallas is no slouch at 20.0% in nine games. Colorado has a slightly better than average penalty kill, although its 88.0% success rate had a lot to do with Arizona’s ineptness. The Stars’ penalty kill was middling in the regular season (17th) and the postseason (76.7%). Advantage: Avs

Prediction: Avalanche in seven. This has the makings of a fantastic series, as the Stars’ cagey veterans and stingy defense battle a Colorado team that has looked absolutely locked in since the tournament started. An upset isn’t out of the question, but given Colorado’s special teams, health and top-line advantages, they find a way to win here.

Original article: https://www.espn.com/nhl/story/_/id/29713415/2020-nhl-playoffs-preview-colorado-avalanche-vs-dallas-stars-matchup-series-pick

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