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2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs Preview: Dallas Stars vs. Edmonton Oilers

Dallas Stars vs. Edmonton Oilers
The well-rounded Stars will have their hands full with the star power of the Oilers.

2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs Preview: Dallas Stars vs. Edmonton Oilers

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are all about taking advantage of your opportunities. For both the Dallas Stars and Edmonton Oilers, the time is now. The Oilers are nearing the end of the eight-year extensions they signed Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to in 2017. Dallas’ two highest-paid players — Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin — are in their 30s. Joe Pavelski and Ryan Suter are the oldest players left in the playoffs. They’re also two of only five active NHLers at age 39 or older.

Both know how steeper the climb gets at this stage. Each had ugly showings in their last conference final they’re hoping to shake off. It’s a series that puts two different types of teams against each other. One relies on depth and physicality. The other focuses on two of the sport’s most dynamic players. Neither label fully captures either squad, each of which would be a worthy representative of the West in the Stanley Cup Final.

Recent History

This will be the ninth Oilers-Stars Stanley Cup Playoffs series, with each team being the other’s second-most frequent playoff opponent. The history goes back to the Minnesota North Stars days. Dallas may want to consider a relocation based on how things have trended, however. The Oilers have won the last five series between the two sides, which account for all but one of their whopping six playoff meetings between 1997-2003. They haven’t met since then, though, making this a rematch 21 years in the making.

The Last Time Out

One of these teams is guaranteed to not do something they did in their last WCF appearance: fall behind 3-0 in the series. The Stars fought back last year, winning Game 4 in overtime and Game 5 on the road against the Vegas Golden Knights before running out of gas. They probably deserved a better fate, though. The first two games went to overtime and the Stars collected 51% of the expected goals at 5-on-5, only to be outscored 18-8. Dallas does at least have a 2020 third round victory over Vegas to hang its hat on.

Edmonton, meanwhile, was totally outclassed in the 2022 Western Conference Final against the Colorado Avalanche. Though only Game 2 was a true blowout, the Avalanche controlled play throughout the series, with shaky goaltending from Mike Smith (who would never play in the NHL again after that series) the nail in the coffin of a Colorado sweep. Granted, Draisaitl was playing through a severe high ankle sprain (although he still recorded six assists in the series). Thirteen Oilers from that series are still with the team, so hopefully they’ve learned from that losing experience.

Why Dallas Wins

Offense wins games, but defense wins championships. The Oilers defense may be better than some give them credit for. They’re third in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in shots against per game and limited the Vancouver Canucks to an average of two goals per game after separating the disastrous Darnell NurseCody Ceci pair after Game 3. But the Stars are the second best team in the playoffs in expected goals against per 60 (somehow trailing only the Washington Capitals). Their personnel clearly trumps Edmonton’s, even with the impact Mattias Ekholm has made in his first full season in Alberta.

The biggest advantage in this series lies in net. Stuart Skinner lost the starter’s net midway through the Vancouver series and wasn’t severely tested in the final two games (and the Canucks still rallied in Game 7). While this season hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows for Jake Oettinger, the breakout rookie of the 2022 playoffs has blossomed into a Cup-caliber goaltender. Only Jeremy Swayman and Igor Shesterkin have saved more goals above expected than Oettinger. For comparison, Stuart Skinner is 24th out of 26 net-minders at -2.2 GSAE. Cal Pickard is a respectable 12th with 1.2 GSAE, but he’s certainly an unproven option.

One of the biggest differences for Dallas since last year is the glow-up of Thomas Harley. He played just six NHL games in the 2022-23 regular season but was a playoff regular, putting up nine points in 19 games with stellar underlying numbers. He did that in a third-pair role, but has continued thriving this year as one of Peter DeBoer‘s most-trusted options. His partnership with Miro Heiskanen is sixth in the playoffs in ice-time and seventh in xG% at 5-on-5 (min. 50 minutes played).

Heiskanen, the 2020 Conn Smythe favorite if Dallas won the Cup, is a large part of that himself, of course. He’s the team’s leading scorer (just as he was in 2020) with 13 points. No defenseman has more playoff goals than his five. But the pairing right behind Harley-Heiskanen on the xG% chart? Harley and Chris Tanev, who have meshed well in 51 minutes together. It’s a small sample size, yes, but shows how good Harley is.

His emergence allows Suter to play a lesser role in his 19th NHL season. It’s also allowed DeBoer to stay away from the untrusted Nils Lundkvist as much as possible. He may not play again in these playoffs, with Alex Petrovic taking his spot at the end of the second round and Jani Hakanpää nearing his first action since March 16 due to injury.

First-year Star Matt Duchene may be counted on more in this series if Roope Hintz remains sidelined or struggles in returning from an injury that’s kept him out of the last two games. He had one goal in Dallas’ first 12 playoff games before eliminating his old team with the double overtime winner in Game 6 last round. Wyatt Johnston is establishing himself as a clutch playoff performer at just 21 years old, following up a 32-goal regular season with seven goals and excellent play-driving results as Dallas’ most-used forward.

What’s so scary about the Stars is they’ve gotten this far with most of their best forwards not at top gear. Pavelski has just one goal. Jason Robertson has 12 points but is one of only four stars being losing the xG battle at 5-on-5. Tyler Seguin is a similar situation. Mason Marchment missed the first five games of the playoffs, but has looked good since returning. Jamie Benn isn’t seen as one of the league’s premier players anymore, although he’s been incredibly effective with eight points and a team-best on-ice goals for percentage of 71.43 (5-2).

Some better performances there would go a long way for Dallas’ chances. So would some positive regression for their penalty kill. Despite ranking fourth in the playoffs in expected goals against per 60 on the PK, the Stars have gone from a 82% success rate in the regular season to 69% in the playoffs. A league-worst .667% shorthanded save percentage seems to be the main culprit. Whatever the issue is, though, it better be fixed by the time McDavid and Draisaitl roll into town.

Why Edmonton Wins

Well, they’ve got the top four scorers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, so that’s a good start. Yeah, it’s not just the McDavid and Draisaitl show, and it’s not just Evan Bouchard and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins behind them (the other two top scorers). This year’s Oilers are scoring at a comparable rate as their conference final club from two years prior. Like then, McDavid and Draisaitl are assisting on about a third of the team’s goals.

The main difference, though, lies on defense. While it’s not as strong of a group as Dallas’ backend, this year’s Oilers team is averaging more than a goal fewer per game than the 2021-22 team and close to the same compared to last year’s team that bowed out in the second round to Vegas. It starts at the top, where Ekholm and Bouchard ranked fifth and second among players in the Pacific Division by Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic’s net rating model. Bouchard especially is primarily an offensive defenseman. But when you have the puck as much as they do (61.52% xG in 187 minutes together), you’re going to find success. Sure enough, the Oilers are outscoring opponents 13-6 with the duo on the ice.

First, fourth, and sixth by Luszczyszyn’s model in the Pacific were McDavid, Zach Hyman, and Draisaitl (Quinn Hughes was the only non-Oiler to penetrate the top six). McDavid only has two goals in these playoffs. But 19 assists and stellar underlying numbers continue to solidify him as not just the sport’s best player but someone who rises to the occasion. Of his 21 points, 11 have come on the power-play. There are similar breakdowns for Draisaitl (12 of 24), Bouchard (8 of 20), and Nugent-Hopkins (7 of 16).

However, the Oilers are far from over-reliant on their man-advantage. Not only does Edmonton lead the playoffs with 15 power-play goals and a 37.5% success rate, 60.1% of the Oilers’ playoff goals have come at 5-on-5, the highest rate of any remaining team. Case in point: the Oilers only got two power-play goals in the final four games against Vancouver. They still went 3-1 in that stretch.

It helps to have a strong second line, led by Draisaitl but containing another big playoff performer in Evander Kane. Dylan Holloway chipped in with two points in the final two games of the second round, completing a trio that has a 52.78% xG share in 38 minutes together and is outscoring opponents 4-1 together. The Oilers’ current fourth line of Mattias Janmark, Sam Carrick, and Connor Brown have played even less together (just 14 minutes). However, they did collect a 58.89% xG mark in that time.

Corey Perry hasn’t been his usual effective self so far in these playoffs, leading to scratchings in the last two games. The ex-Star seems tailor made for the type of nasty series this will likely be, though. Adam Henrique has been limited to six games in these playoffs due to an ankle injury. He won’t play in Game 1, head coach Kris Knoblauch is expecting him to return soon. Henrique at his best can close the gap in the bottom six between the teams. We already know Edmonton has the edge in high-end talent, even when the Stars’ star scorers are at their best.

The Pick

Depth or skill? The question isn’t that simple. You need a bit of everything to be one of the final four teams standing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Both of these teams have it all, just with somewhat different structures.

Dallas has important edges in net and in head-coaching experience. This is DeBoer’s seventh conference finals as a head coach. Meanwhile, Game 1 will be just Knoblauch’s 82nd game (regular season plus playoffs) leading an NHL team. Head coaching experience can be overrated, although rarely is the disparity this drastic.

The Oilers have been rolling for months now, though. While they’re still underdogs on this stage, just as they were two years ago, the gap has shrunk. The sense of urgency is higher for McDavid and Draisaitl after the spook that was the dismal start to their season that led to Jay Woodcroft‘s ouster. It’s been 13 years since a Canadian team out of the Western Conference. Leave it up to No. 97 and 29 to change that. Oilers in six.

Oddly Specific Prediction

This is an idea I always borrow from one of the best hockey writers, The Athletic’s Sean McIndoe (aka Down Goes Brown). The idea is very self-explanatory: make a very specific and semi-random prediction for each series. The idea is his; the prediction itself is mine.

Edmonton’s penalty kill has gone a bit under the radar in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The offense is fun to watch, but the Oilers’ PK is a playoff best 91.7%. Their clinical killing of a double minor in Game 7 against the Canucks proved to be a turning point. In fact, they nearly scored a short-handed goal on that kill, with Brown failing to finish on a breakaway. They’ll get redemption for that in this round, however, scoring a game-winning short-handed goal.

Advanced Stats via Natural Stat TrickMoneypuck and The Athletic

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