When the NHL playoffs began, the bookmakers didn’t give the Dallas Stars much of a chance to win the Stanley Cup. The Stars had a decent regular season, buttressed by their excellent goaltending tandem of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin, who each ranked among the league’s top 10 in terms of save percentage and quality start percentage.1 But Dallas was still far from a great team. Its power play was middling, its penalty kill was below average and it scored fewer goals per game than all but five other teams. And in terms of HockeyReference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS), which estimates the strength of every team in the NHL,2 Dallas ranked in the middle of the pack. The bookmakers didn’t give Dallas much of a chance to win the Stanley Cup because Dallas hardly proved it was good enough to qualify for the playoffs, let alone win once it got there.
Its overall regular-season mediocrity aside, Dallas’s goaltending was something to behold in 2019-20. Thanks to Bishop and Khudobin, the Stars gave up the second-fewest goals per game: just 2.52, bettered only by the Boston Bruins. But that number has been much worse during the playoffs. Dallas is suddenly leaking goals, giving up 3.05 per game,3 the worst mark among teams that have played at least 10 playoff games this season.
Some of that can be blamed on an injury to Bishop, which has limited Dallas’s No. 1 netminder to just three starts of the Stars’ 21 playoff games.4 But Khudobin was even better than Bishop during the regular season — albeit in fewer starts — posting the league’s best save percentage and second-best quality start percentage among goalies who made at least 26 starts. Tides have shifted for the Russian netminder during the playoffs, however. Khudobin has posted a quality start just 47 percent of the time,5 far lower than his 2019-20 regular-season mark of 73 percent and his career mark of 59 percent.
We have written time and time again about the role good goaltending plays in a successful Stanley Cup run. It’s not easy — though not impossible — to win the Stanley Cup without good goaltending, and that good goaltending is usually more a function of good goaltender play carrying over from the regular season, not the sudden and miraculous discovery of good form in the midst of the playoffs. Bishop’s injury was unfortunate, but Dallas had a backup in place who was equally as good, if not better, to take over in case of emergency. Khudobin’s regular-season form suggested the Stars would be in good shape for a deep playoff run, the loss of their No. 1 choice notwithstanding. Instead, Khudobin has been off the mark so far in the bubble, playing some of the worst hockey of his career.
The Stars qualified for the playoffs on the back of league-best goalie play and in spite of overall mediocrity. A precipitous dip in goaltending form for an otherwise average hockey team wouldn’t appear to be the formula for a deep playoff run, and yet it hasn’t mattered to this point: The Stars are, somehow, just four wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup for the second time in franchise history.
So, what’s been the source of the Stars’ success, if not their formerly great goaltending? For starters, they’ve made vast improvements in their special teams play while in the bubble. During the regular season, Dallas converted just 21.1 percent of its power play opportunities (13th in the league) and had a penalty kill percentage of 79.7 (17th in the league). Those numbers have jumped quite a bit during the playoffs: The Stars have converted 27.3 percent of their power play opportunities (fifth in the league) and have a penalty kill percentage of 83.3 (ninth in the league) in the bubble.
The exceptional offensive play of second-year defenseman Miro Heiskanen hasn’t hurt, either. The young Finn has scored five goals from the blueline and has assisted on 17 more. If the Stars do end up winning this thing, Heiskanen is a good bet for the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the playoff MVP.
But will better-than-average special teams play and the emergence of a great young defenseman be enough against a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning, which score and defend at elite rates? To be sure, Dallas is getting enough offense to win the Stanley Cup, averaging 2.95 goals per game. Since the lockout of 2004-05, five cup winners have averaged fewer goals per game. But no team since the lockout has lifted the cup after scoring fewer goals than it conceded.
|Goals per playoff game|
|2018-19||St. Louis Blues||2.88||2.69||+0.19|
|2013-14||Los Angeles Kings||3.38||2.69||+0.42|
|2011-12||Los Angeles Kings||2.85||1.50||+1.35|
|2007-08||Detroit Red Wings||3.27||1.86||+1.41|
The logic behind that fact may seem fundamental — it’s hard to win hockey games without scoring more frequently than the opposition, after all — but the Stars just advanced to the Stanley Cup Final having scored fewer goals during the first three rounds of the playoffs than they have allowed. It’s possible that Dallas could get blown out in three games during the finals, win the other four by tight margins and become the first team since at least the lockout to lift the Stanley Cup after conceding more goals than it scored. More likely, the Stars will get punished by a team like Tampa Bay if they continue to concede at their current rate.