I'm sure this thought goes through every fan's mind at some point. You watch the playoffs, see the teams still alive and just think to yourself, "What the hell? My team is better than this." In the NHL playoffs this season, Dallas Stars fans can't help but think that when they see teams like the LA Kings, Phoenix Coyotes and Washington Capitals still playing (and doing exceedingly well in the cases of the Western Conference).
Out of the eight teams still alive (Kings, Coyotes, Capitals, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils) only the Rangers and Flyers have talent that clearly outclasses the Stars. The Rangers are better across the board while the Flyers are about 100% more talented on offense than Dallas. Aside from them, you could make a case that the Stars are just as good as any of the other teams when you look at the rosters and evaluate the players.
Take a look at the goalies still going: Jonathan Quick (LA), Henrik Lundqvist (NYR), Mike Smith (PHX), Pekka Rinne (NSH), Brian Elliott/Jaroslav Halak (STL), Martin Brodeur (NJ), Braden Holtby (WSH) and Ilya Bryzgalov (PHI). In my opinion, only Quick and Lundqvist are better than Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen (which is why both were considered for the Hart Trophy and why Lundqvist got the nomination).
Kari is just as good, or better, than each of the other goalies. Philadelphia would probably kill to have Lehtonen right now because every shot against Bryzgalov looks like it has a 90% chance of getting past him. You could fit two trains side-by-side through his five-hole right now and the only reason he hasn't been benched is because his back-up is even worse.
Lehtonen has numbers that are equal to everyone else during the regular season aside from the pair of goalies in St. Louis. That set-up is a bit odd though because both Halak and Elliott split time during the season and didn't have to make a long string of starts like they have to do in the playoffs. Elliott has struggled a bit since Halak went down with an injury, culminating in allowing five goals to the low scoring LA Kings.
One of the standouts in the playoffs so far, Smith, has been playing out of his mind though it looks like he's finally coming back down to earth. He looked like a Conn Smythe worthy goalie in the first round, which is something I firmly believe Lehtonen is capable of because he's shown flashes of it during the regular season. Another guy playing well, Holtby, is a rookie and barely played in the regular season. He's only here because of injuries and he was fantastic in the first round.
Here's where the Stars get into a bit of a pickle. Their defenders this season were less than satisfactory and would constantly put the goalies in bad positions. They found themselves out of positions a lot and struggled to keep up with the quicker teams. As the season grew on, the offensive production of the group also fell to the wayside and it all went to hell. Now this would easily seem like a death sentence for the Stars playoff chances, but then I look at the teams still alive and the Stars defensemen are certainly no worse than the guys still playing.
The individual defense can get a bit overrated during playoff time, especially with the parity going on in the league right now. Sure there can be standout performances. Dennis Seidenberg in the first round for Boston did an incredible job with Zdeno Chara, but their team was still knocked out by the Capitals. This is a Capitals team that plays Dennis Wideman as a second/third pair defenseman for 20+ minutes a game. Wideman has been one of the worst players in the entire playoffs this year. He's a walking (skating really) disaster on ice and was on the ice for nearly every single goal scored against his team in the first round. He's as far away from playoff MVP as you could possibly get.
The defensemen league-wide have been pretty porous. The best pair in the entire NHL, Ryan Suter and Shea Weber of Nashville, has been consistently beaten by a group of Phoenix Coyotes forwards that struck fear in no one this season. Philadelphia has one of the worst defensive groups in the league and a terrible goalie, but they're still going because of their offensive capabilities.
It's all about two things, goaltending and two-way forwards that are willing to sacrifice the body. Teams like the Kings, Coyotes and Caps have been getting great goaltending and their forwards have been doing fantastic work tracking back and playing defense, especially for the Caps and Kings. Guys like Dustin Brown and Nicklas Backstrom have been putting in MVP performances on the defensive side of the ice and really taking pressure of the defense. Everyone on the Caps is throwing their bodies at shots to try and block them and it's helped their rookie goalie Holtby enormously. While the Stars don't have great defensemen, they do have some solid two-way forwards in Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson and pure defensive forwards like Vernon Fiddler.
Dallas can certainly skate by in the playoffs with their defense considering how bad defenders have been as a whole in these playoffs.
We can go ahead and throw the Flyers out of this group when comparing them to Dallas. They are one of the deepest and most talented in the entire league and far and away much better than the Stars. I would also be inclined to say the Rangers and even the Predators are clearly better than Dallas. Every other team is fair game though.
The Kings were the absolute worst offense in the NHL this season while the Devils and Capitals were in the middle of the pack. The Coyotes and Blues were in the bottom third (which is where the Stars were this season). A majority of the teams still alive have bad offenses so it's not like a potent scoring team is necessary to advance.
Among the teams eliminated in the first round: The Pittsburgh Penguins (number one offense in the NHL), Boston Bruins (tied for second), Ottawa Senators (fourth), Chicago Blackhawks (tied for fifth), Vancouver Canucks (tied for fifth) and Detroit Red Wings (seventh). The other two were the San Jose Sharks (13th) and Florida Panthers (27th).
Six of the top seven offenses in the NHL were knocked out in the first round. Let me repeat that, six of the top seven. The only one left alive in that group is the Flyers and they're only still going because they played the Penguins in round one and managed to score more. Offense isn't the be-all, end-all in this league (though it can certainly help). As I said before, in the playoffs, all that matters is the goaltending and how well the forwards can help out the defense. Dallas has that.
Some teams can suddenly get better as well in the playoffs. Phoenix has been getting great play from every line of their forwards. A guy like Antoine Vermette, who scored 10 points in 22 games in the regular season, is suddenly one on the most potent players on the Coyotes with eight points in eight playoff games. Gilbert Brule has been getting barely nine minutes of ice time as a fourth liner and yet, he's been one of the best players on the entire Coyotes team with the work that he's done.
Dustin Brown has scored four shorthanded goals for the Kings in just a round and a half, turning a man disadvantage into an advantage. He's scored more shorthanded goals than the Kings have power play goals. Dustin Penner spent the season as a complete joke but has come up huge in the postseason with six points in seven games, including back-to-back multi-point games.
The playoffs can bring out the best in people, even those that have done nothing during the regular season. Dallas just needs a chance to get in and who knows what happens. The Stars certainly have more explosive players than the Kings and Coyotes (both of which currently lead 2-0 in their respective conference semifinals series).
The Special Teams
Here's where it gets tricky for Dallas. They had a historically bad power play in the regular season, but a pretty good (not great) penalty kill. Those two aspects of the game can make all the difference during the playoffs. Boston was knocked out because they couldn't buy a power play goal and Pittsburgh was knocked out because they couldn't stop a anything on the penalty kill. The Blues are currently losing to the Kings 2-0 in the second round because they're 0 of 12 on the PP (in just two games) and have allowed more goals on the power play than they have scored.
If special teams, especially the power play, became a big part of the games the Stars would have a lot of trouble. This is the one part of the team that is not playoff ready and it cost them a chance at making the playoffs with poor execution during the regular season. This part of the game really needs to improve next season.
The Stars have been oh so close to making the playoffs in the past couple of seasons only to fall just short. With the parity going on in the league right now (lesser teams and lower seeds have really dominated the playoffs) a good run through the playoffs can happen to any team that has the right parts. Dallas certainly has two of parts down pat (maybe three) and a good playoff run is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.