Alexander Radulov

Stars splitting up top trio to jumpstart offense vs. Blues

Jim Montgomery admitted on Tuesday that breaking up his top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov is something he contemplates every game.

It appears as if the Dallas Stars head coach is going to go through with that thought for Game 4 (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream) against the St. Louis Blues. During Wednesday’s morning skate, Seguin was centering Jason Dickinson and Mats Zuccarello, while Benn and Radulov were together with Roope Hintz in the middle.

With the Stars facing the prospect of a 3-1 deficit should they lose Game 4, Montgomery is trying to inject some life into an offense that has mustered five even strength goals through three games. Only one of those 5-on-5 goals have come from a member of that No. 1 line (Seguin). Benn and Radulov each have a power play goal in the series.

“Both lines haven’t been possessing the puck enough,” Montgomery said after Wednesday. “Let’s change up the lineup and see if we can generate more offense and more possession time.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Stars’ top trio have combined for 18 shots at even strength in the series, but they haven’t all been good chances, according to Montgomery, and it’s definitely not been enough in his eyes. According to Natural Stat Trick, in a little over 33 minutes of 5-on-5 play together, they’ve done well possession-wise (53.52% Corsi) but have yet to combine for a goal. Montgomery is hoping the split will lead to improved results across his lines.

Dallas has been down this road before having fallen behind 2-1 to the Nashville Predators in Round 1 before reeling off three consecutive wins to advance. The games don’t get any easier at this points, and Montgomery is hoping the situation his players find themselves in leads to a better showing and result.

“We need to be more desperate,” Montgomery said. “That’s the one area where, it’s two games and both games that we’ve lost, we’ve played good hockey but haven’t played desperate hockey. I thought the Blues were significantly more desperate than us [Monday].”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Return home could be what Stars’ top line needs

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The Dallas Stars did what they needed to do in St. Louis by splitting the first two games of their Round 2 series.

That is always the goal when a team opens on the road because it swings home-ice advantage back in their favor.

What was perhaps most impressive about the Stars’ ability to take one of those two games is that they did it with almost no production from their top line that is centered by Tyler Seguin. That is the type of development that would have completely sunk their chances just a couple of months ago.

The trio of Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov combined for zero even-strength points in the two games (Benn did score on the power play late in Game 1) while it was the second line, driven by the surprising performance of Roope Hintz and the always underappreciated brilliance of Mats Zuccarello, that did the damage to even the series in Game 2.

The Seguin-Benn-Radulov line going two games without a goal isn’t really a huge deal on its own, especially after they were so dominant in Round 1 against the Nashville Predators. Your best players aren’t going to score every night, and in Dallas’ case they have carried more than their fair share of the weight throughout most of the 2018-19 season. Because of that nobody should be too concerned about how this series has started for them. But if the Stars are going to win the series and pull off another upset that trio is probably going to have to get going again. A return home might be just what they need to get going because of the matchup opportunities home ice creates.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Specifically, it might get them a little more time away from Ryan O'Reilly, the Blues’ top shutdown center.

O’Reilly was a huge addition for the Blues over the summer because he is one of the league’s better two-way centers.

He is not only a top-line scorer (he finished the season as the Blues’ leading scorer) but has a track record of being able to go against other team’s top players and not only limit their damage, but also play them tough without taking penalties. Put it all together and that is an enormously valuable asset that has been a franchise-changer for the Blues in the short-term.

In their head-to-head matchups season he has been a thorn in the side of the Stars’ top line, especially Seguin at the center spot.

Here is a quick look at Seguin’s head-to-head numbers against O’Reilly this season (regular season and playoffs included, via Natural Stat Trick).

Basically, when he has been on the ice against O’Reilly, whether it has been in St. Louis or Dallas, the Stars have spent more time defending in their own zone and giving up chances than they have attacking and creating chances.

That is not what the Stars want from that group.

Getting home ice and the last change could give Stars coach Jim Montgomery more of an opportunity to get Seguin’s line away from O’Reilly, which is something he did in their last home game against the Blues, when Seguin played only three minutes of 5-on-5 time against him.

The matchup game can be an important one in a best-of-seven series, and especially in any one individual game, but it can also tricky one because you don’t want to get so caught up in that you hold your top players back and keep them off the ice because you are afraid of a matchup.

Both players are probably going to play 19-22 minutes each game and it is a given that their paths, at some point, are going to cross. Especially during the flow of the game when teams are changing on the fly. The only time you can really dictate it is during faceoffs. But so far this season it has been pretty clear that O’Reilly has done his part to limit what Seguin and the Stars’ top line can do. If the Stars can avoid that matchup for even a few minutes each game in this series when they have home ice it might help create an extra goal or two that could swing the series in their favor.

MORE:
The Wraparound: Blues feel confident on the road
PHT Power Rankings: The most surprising scorers in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Ben Bishop on Miro Heiskanen: He is going to be a Hall of Famer

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Crazy first period sequence helps lift Stars to Game 2 win over Blues

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A two-goal effort from rookie forward Roope Hintz and a flawless performance by the penalty kill helped lift the Dallas Stars to a 4-2 win over the St. Louis Blues in Game 2 of their Western Conference playoff series on Saturday afternoon.

The Round 2 series is now tied, 1-1, as if shifts to Dallas on Monday night.

Hintz opened the scoring for the Stars at the 7:11 mark of the first period with his third goal of the playoffs, capitalizing on a great shift by him and linemate Mats Zuccarello.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Just a few minutes after that goal, the Stars and Blues combined for a crazy two-minute sequence during a four-on-four situation that saw the teams combine for three goals, scoring on three consecutive shots.

The Stars ended up getting the better of that sequence, scoring two goals on highlight reel tallies by rookie defender Miro Heiskanen and veteran forward Mattias Janmark.

Heiskanen’s goal was quickly followed by a goal from Blues defender Colton Parayko to cut the deficit in half. But the Stars quickly responded with Janmark’s first goal of the playoffs just 26 seconds later. Janmark’s goal ended up going in the books as the game-winner.

The Blues would again cut the deficit to a single goal early in the third period when Jaden Schwartz continued has recent goal-scoring binge with his fifth goal of the playoffs.

They were never able to get the equalizer.

They were gifted a great opportunity in the closing minutes when Hintz made the mistake of firing the puck over the glass in the defensive zone, resulting in a delay of game penalty. But the Blues’ power play, which struggled all day, including on a brief 5-on-3 advantage earlier in the game, was unable to score, even after pulling starting goalie Jordan Binnington to give them a 6-on-4 advantage.

Hintz ended up scoring an empty-net goal to put the game away after exiting the penalty box. He also recorded an assist on Heiskanen’s goal in the second period and is now up to seven points in eight games this postseason. His emergence, as well as the return of a healthy Zuccarello, has given the Stars a really strong second line that has perfectly complemented their top line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov.

Starting goalie Ben Bishop played a big role on all of the penalty kills and was once again outstanding in the Stars’ net, turning aside 32 of the 34 shots he faced.

This sprawling, desperation save mid-way through the second period was one of his finest plays of the day.

 

Game 3 of Blues-Stars is Monday at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Zuccarello is perfect complement for Stars’ top line

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The Dallas Stars had a problem for much of the 2018-19 season, and it was always a very easy one to identify.

Even when the team was at its lowest point, their top trio of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn was doing what it had always done in carrying the team’s offense.

When Seguin and Benn came under irrational fire from their own CEO in the middle of the season, they were far from the biggest issue on the team. In fact, they weren’t even an issue at all and just five seconds of objective research should have made that clear. When they were on the ice the Stars were carrying the play, dominating the opposition, and performing exactly as you would want your franchise players to perform. Maybe the individual numbers weren’t what we have come to expect from them, but they were consistently outplaying and outscoring their opponents.

The problem was that they didn’t have any other forwards that could do the same thing. Their forward depth was so thin that only one other forward outside of the Seguin-Benn-Radulov trio topped topped the 30-point mark this season (Radek Faksa had exactly 30 points in 81 games). That is not anywhere near good enough. It wasn’t a “star” problem; it was a problem with players around the stars.

But because the top trio was so good, and because they received Vezina-worthy goaltending from Ben Bishop (and don’t forget about the play of backup Anton Khudobin, either) they were able to stay in playoff contention in a watered down Western Conference and continue playing their way toward the postseason. If they were going to do anything once they got there they were going to need somebody outside of their top line to provide some kind of a threat offensively.

This is where Mats Zuccarello comes in.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

He has only played seven games with the team entering Game 6 of their Round 1 series against the Nashville Predators on Monday night (8 p.m. ET; CNBC; Live stream), but his impact has already been noticeable.

The Stars acquired Zuccarello from the New York Rangers just before the NHL trade deadline and in his first game with the team made an immediate impact with a goal and an assist in a 4-3 win. It was exactly what the Stars needed for the stretch run. But because he was also injured in that game and missed several weeks they never really had an opportunity to see exactly what he could provide. They are seeing it in the playoffs where he has already tallied three goals (second only to Radulov) and has given them an additional threat offensively.

It’s even more impressive when you remember he is still finding his way with a new team and still probably isn’t all the way back to 100 percent.

In other words, he probably has room to get better.

When you look at his individual shot and scoring chance numbers he hasn’t created a ton of them, and so far is riding a short-term spike in shooting percentage to carry his postseason production. It would be fair to point to that as somewhat of a red flag for what it might mean in the future.

You have to keep in mind, though, that the injury not only took him off the ice, it also robbed him of an opportunity to develop chemistry with a new set of linemates. Getting thrown into what is still a new lineup, when you may not be totally healthy, and right in the middle of the madness that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs is not an easy thing to do. There is still probably a bit of an adjustment period taking place here.

What is important for the Stars, though, is that he is another high-level player that has the ability to capitalize on the chances he does get, and that is an element the team had been lacking all season.

He is a threat with a proven track record of production.

Zuccarello has been a criminally underrated player for quite some time now and has always been a lock to finish with 50-60 points over a full season. That may not seem great or anything that instantly jumps off the page at you, but it is top-line production, and top-line players are not always easy to acquire.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the year Zuccarello became a full-time player in the NHL, his 0.72 point-per-game average puts him 67th out of more than 570 players that have appeared in at least 200 games during that stretch.

Outside of Seguin, Benn, and Radulov there is not another forward currently on the Stars’ roster that sits in the top-100 out of that group.

Jason Spezza is the only other one in the top-200.

You have to go all the way down to Faksa at No. 296 to find the next one.

There just wasn’t enough impact talent elsewhere on the roster to help support the Stars’ top players.

Zuccarello gives them one, and his presence, along with the emergence of Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz in this series, is a big reason they have been able to put themselves in a position to advance.

MORE: Hintz becoming important part of Stars’ lineup

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Will all this drama derail the Stars?

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The drama just never seems to stop for the Dallas Stars, although things do get kind of boring when this team actually tries to score goals. Worse yet, the Stars aren’t piling up PR losses alone any longer, as Dallas is now mired in a four-game losing streak.

The latest drama

Thursday presented the latest episode of “As the Stars Turn,” with embattled Stars coach Jim Montgomery deciding to bench Alexander Radulov – one of the team’s precious few actual scorers – for the remainder of the first period after an argument.

Such a tactic clearly isn’t about X’s and O’s, but instead about sending a message. If the message was sent, perhaps it was taken by carrier pigeon, as the results weren’t immediate. The Stars dropped a sad 2-1 loss to the lowly Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. During this span (all regulation losses), the Stars have scored a measly three goals. Total.

As Matthew DeFranks of the Dallas Morning News and others report, Radulov was able to cool off from his argument with Montgomery, eventually saying that his benching was “the right decision.”

Plenty of other people in the hockey world aren’t so easily convinced, and judging by Montgomery’s comments, even the coach might (deep down) have some second thoughts.

“Every decision we make is what’s best for the Dallas Stars, and at that moment, I thought that was best for the Dallas Stars,” Montgomery said. “When you’re struggling to score goals, it’s hard to do with a player of that caliber.”

In isolation, maybe Radulov did need to be reprimanded. The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro (sub. required) and others point out that Radulov had been drawing criticism for mental errors, including taking too-long shifts.

The questionable decisions and self-inflicted wounds really pile up when you look at the bigger picture, though. And that picture isn’t pretty.

Passing the buck

Ever since Stars CEO Jim Lites absolutely trashed Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn before the end of 2018, the Stars have suffered an almost unending run of embarrassing moments, and most of management’s wounds seem resoundingly self-inflicted.

After all, Lites went out of his way to throw Seguin and Benn under the bus, chiding bloggers to “write this!”

Since then, there’s been a steady stream of mistakes, and it doesn’t really seem like management is ever turning the discussion inward, at least on the record. Honestly, I almost picture Stars management transforming into Principal Skinner at some point.

Back in November, Montgomery discussed the Stars’ challenges in depth during a PHT Q&A, and it’s difficult to tell if anything’s changed for the better.

“Where we’ve got to get consistent is valuing our details that allow us to have success on nights when we don’t have legs. That’s where we have, I think, not embraced the process enough.”

All of the messaging seems to be about effort or “character.” Montgomery recently railed against a “culture of mediocrity,” but the thing is, that culture of mediocrity might just be plaguing the Stars’ front office more than the locker room.

This is a franchise that’s frequently failed when it comes to drafting, even whiffing on some crucial first-round picks. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn aren’t the ones who have bungled their way through a procession of three different head coaches in three seasons. GM Jim Nill and his staff were the ones who made mistakes like crossing their fingers that Martin Hanzal would somehow become a healthier player as he got older.

Maybe all of this bluster is an attempt to create a smokescreen around something that’s pretty obvious: management has failed to surround Benn, Seguin, Radulov, John Klingberg, and a few others with the proper supporting cast to succeed when they “don’t have their legs.”

Not hopeless yet

All things considered, it’s actually pretty amusing that the Stars would land in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they began today.

In fact, the Stars aren’t so far off from the Colorado Avalanche, who currently rest as the third seed in the Central Division (27-18-8 for 50 points in 47 games played, 21 regulation/overtime wins).

Sure, the West’s wild card races are starting to feel like that year in the NFC where the Seattle Seahawks made the NFL playoffs with a 7-9 record, but if the Stars can stumble their way into a playoff berth, maybe they should start to take a more positive approach?

After all, it sure doesn’t seem like anyone’s having fun. From a per-game perspective, the Stars are the third weakest scoring team in the NHL, but they’ve been able to grind out wins thanks to fantastic goaltending and pretty solid special teams work.

Walking such a tight rope can lead to frayed nerves, yet failing to support the players doing the balancing act may throw everything out of whack.

A four-game losing streak, and a tiny margin for error to maintain a playoff spot, sends a message. While management seems to believe that they need to push and humiliate their players, maybe they should instead provide them support with an upgrade in trades — and a pat on the back?

After all, their competition might be just as much of a mess, but they seem to get that memo.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.