2024 NHL playoff preview: Dallas Stars vs. Colorado Avalanche

By Sean Gentille, Dom Luszczyszyn and Shayna Goldman

On one hand, it’s unfortunate that two teams as good — and as fun — as the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche have to meet in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. On the other, we should feel lucky that we’re getting the matchup at all. It’s a conference finals-caliber series; it’s just starting a little early.

Both teams were favored in their first-round matchups, but only the Stars were truly tested. They’re the favorites here, as well. Can Colorado’s stars help close the gap? Will the series live up to its expectations? We’ll start figuring things out on Tuesday night in Dallas.

The odds

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If your first instinct is, “this series feels a lot closer than this,” we don’t blame you. The Avalanche are an elite offensive team that flipped the switch in Round 1, pulverizing a supposedly stout Winnipeg Jets team. They look ready for a deep run.

But there is a massive obstacle in their way: arguably the league’s most complete team. Even the best teams have some flaw in one way or another, whether that’s offense or defense, star power or depth, finishing or goaltending. The Stars are the rare team that can check almost every box. They’re a two-way powerhouse built to keep up with some of Colorado’s biggest strengths and overwhelm its weaknesses.

Colorado carries championship pedigree, and that matters more than shown above. That alone might make this series closer to a toss-up. But our best guess is that the Stars ultimately prevail — this feels like their year.

The numbers

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With 17 goals between these two teams, this is the most even second-round series by the numbers.

When it comes to the Stars, the word that stands out is “balance.” Dallas’ plus-71 Net Rating is fueled by their play on both ends of the ice. Offensively, this team gets contributions from up and down the lineup — with eight 20-goal scorers in the regular season and a lot of secondary scoring in Round 1. That depth made for a team that ranked in the top 10 in expected and actual scoring in the regular season. In Round 1, that offensive creation was still there, but was slowed by strong goaltending.

Colorado’s a deeper team than when the season started, but their approach is a bit more top-heavy than Dallas’. It works for them, though, to the tune of a plus-50 Offensive Rating. That improved by eight goals from the regular season after pouring quality chances on the Jets and beating one of the best goalies in the world 24 times in five games.

The Avalanche scored at the highest rate at five-on-five in the league in the regular season. Thanks to their speed off the rush, crafty passing and high-end finishing talent, they’ve maintained that through Round 1.

That’s going to be a test for the Stars’ elite defense. They’re one of the best teams at slowing opponents in transition and disrupting passes, which landed them second in expected goal suppression this season.

Colorado doesn’t stack up to Dallas defensively; they’re separated by a difference of 35 goals. In Round 1, the Avalanche were able to outscore any gaps in their coverage. That likely won’t be as easy to do against the Stars, who are stronger than Winnipeg on both ends of the ice.

The big question

Will Colorado’s star power be the difference in this series?

The Avalanche have built a perennial contender upon an elite core. Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Valeri Nichushkin, Cale Makar and Devon Toews are the reason the team is so dominant year after year.

In most playoff series, those guys are usually the difference, and that was unsurprisingly the case against Winnipeg. The Jets had no answer for Colorado’s fearsome five, who earned a combined Net Rating of 7.3 during the series — 2.4 more goals than expected. Beyond simply being elite players, the fact they further elevate their game when it counts is what always makes the Avalanche a tough out.

The Stars have their own stars, but a cross-examination of the two teams’ top players leaves the Stars wanting in the “one of the best players in the world” department.

Jason Robertson might be able to keep up with Rantanen as one of the league’s best wingers. Roope Hintz’s value is on par with Nichushkin’s, though with obviously different play-styles. Miro Heiskanen might not be Makar, even in a down year for Makar, but he’s always in the conversation for one of the best defensemen in the world. Thomas Harley has blossomed into a legitimate top-pair defenseman worthy of delivering similar value to Toews. Most would probably prefer the Colorado side of that equation, but what the Stars offer is at the very least close enough.

But then there’s MacKinnon — a player the Stars simply do not have an equal counterpart for. To be fair, there are probably only two other teams that do — probably only one, if we factor for playoff acumen.

MacKinnon is a rare breed, the type of player that is extremely difficult to come by and that opposing game plans are built to stop. He can win a series on his own, and has shown as much in the past.

Dallas is the favorite for a reason, as the Stars have more value across their lineup. The Stars make up for the MacKinnon gap in the aggregate with a sizable depth advantage. That might be the difference. But that still means finding an answer for Colorado’s biggest edge.

Having one player be able to deliver that much value in a single lineup spot is a massive luxury. Colorado has enough depth to make things closer elsewhere, with MacKinnon serving as its ace in the hole. He’s a true game-breaker that is extremely difficult to slow down, let alone stop. He rarely fails to at least meet expectations in a series, and his drive to win might be just as scary as his all-world ability.

If there’s one potential saving grace with Dallas’ star players, it’s that they look like the most well-equipped team to handle Colorado’s firepower. Robertson, Hintz, Heiskanen and Harley all carry elite Defensive Ratings that might make things harder than usual for MacKinnon to do his thing. Having an elite shutdown pair in Esa Lindell and Chris Tanev on top of that only furthers things.

They won’t stop him completely, but they might be able to slow him down enough to make Dallas’ advantages elsewhere too overwhelming to overcome. Colorado’s stars shine bright when it matters most, but they might have a difficult time against a Stars team built to dull their glow.

The X-factor

Can Dallas keep getting away with only playing five defensemen?

Stars coach Pete DeBoer deserves all kinds of credit for managing to, essentially, play one defenseman down for the vast majority of the Vegas series. (Ideally, there’d be a non-Nils Lundkvist option somewhere in the organization who’s suited for, say, 10 minutes a game, but we digress.)

Whether that can continue is one of the series’ most interesting subplots. The results so far have been great; each of Dallas’ five regular defensemen has a positive expected goal share. Four of them, though, are averaging more than 23 minutes per game, led by Heiskanen at 27:26. Lundkvist barely played more than that in seven full games. If he had a shot at establishing himself a bit more, it might have gone out the window when he allowed Brett Howden to skate past him and wait for a game-tying tap-in in Game 7. Not ideal.

When playing time is that lopsided, it has a trickle-down effect on Net Ratings; Lundkvist’s is lower because plays so little, and the rest of Dallas’ defense is inflated because they play so much. More importantly for our purposes, the model doesn’t account for fatigue. Has DeBoer? Time to find out.

The rosters

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During the regular season, it was business as usual for Dallas’ top line of Robertson, Hintz and Joe Pavelski. They were largely inseparable (only three forward combos played more together) and highly effective (56.9 percent goal share, 55.6 actual), though a bit less so than in years past.

Against Vegas, though, they were mediocre, mustering just 41 percent of the expected goals share and getting outscored 1-0. Only Robertson had a five-on-five point. The fact that the Stars weathered that and won the series is a testament to how the rest of the roster has improved. It also might be a warning to the remaining teams; Dallas continuing to get so little from those guys isn’t likely. While it’s hard to imagine DeBoer splitting them up on a permanent basis, it’s worth noting that he seems more willing to try different combos; Wyatt Johnston played with Robertson and Pavelski in Game 1, and Pavelski played with Johnston and Jamie Benn in Game 7.

Speaking of Johnston, he’s in the middle of a star turn that’s a) unsurprising and b) still impressive. In Round 1, Dallas earned almost 69 percent of the expected goals share while outscoring Vegas 5-3 with him on the ice. At five-on-five, he created 33 scoring chances, which leads all skaters. Overall, he has four goals and three assists and raised his Offensive Rating by two points in the first round alone. Logan Stankoven also seemed to be up for the task in his first career playoff series, putting up positive Game Scores in five of seven games and setting up a pair of goals. Benn has added a bit, as well, finishing second in all-situations scoring chances with 21 and bringing plenty of physicality. DeBoer split up that trio for Game 7, but going back to it would make sense; Dallas controlled nearly 65 percent of the expected goal share while they were on the ice.

Whatever happens, the Stars will be left with a third line that’ll stack up well against Colorado. Matt Duchene, Tyler Seguin and Mason Marchment put up a 58-percent expected goal share against Vegas, fueled mainly by solid defensive play. Vegas only took 12 shots per 60 with those three on the ice, the best mark from any regular combination of Stars forwards. Strong shot suppression and enough offense to get by — not a bad mix. Dallas also has one of the league’s best all-defense fourth lines, and we saw Radek Faksa score a huge goal in Game 7.

On defense, Dallas has one of the best top pairs remaining in the playoffs. Heiskanen had himself another top-10 season or thereabouts, and Harley is a more-than-capable running mate. They played immense minutes against Vegas’ best players and had a 63-percent expected goal share to show for it. The Tanev-Lindell pairing fared even better, putting an expected goal share of 72 percent and holding Vegas off the scoresheet entirely. Tanev was particularly amazing against the Golden Knights; he played more than 144 minutes, and Dallas outscored Vegas 5-0.

Goalie Jake Oettinger could be a major edge for Dallas. He posted a .925 save percentage against Vegas, and of the 14 goals he allowed, just 10 came in the final six games. He showed a particular knack for locking things down as games progressed and stopped 21 of the 22 shots he faced in Game 7.

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It’s tough to imagine the first round going any better for Colorado. Every skater, outside of MacKinnon, outpaced their Net Rating projections — and in MacKinnon’s case, he only fell short of his (very high) number by a fraction of a point. In other words, he was as great as he should’ve been. He’s the best player in this series, and it’s not a particularly close race.

Nothing was more promising for the Avs than their middle-six glow-up, and that starts with second-line center Casey Mittelstadt. He led Colorado in expected goal share (approximately 61 percent), tied for first with four primary assists, and the Avs outscored Winnipeg 5-3 with him on the ice. It’s crucial that he and Nichushkin continue to produce against Dallas. The MacKinnon line probably can’t carry the offensive load on their own.

Another reason Colorado needs big minutes from the second line is because the bottom six, compared to the Stars’, is lacking. They deserve some credit for how they played against Winnipeg, though — the third and fourth lines both won their minutes, and Miles Wood, Zach Parise and Yakov Trenin all scored important goals. Dallas, though, is not Winnipeg.

On defense, behind the reliable greatness of Makar and Toews, Colorado has been largely average. Against the Jets, Sean Walker did what they acquired him to do — jolt the offense from the third pair. Josh Manson, sandwiched between Makar and Walker on the right side, did even more; he put up three primary assists against Winnipeg, and Colorado outscored Winnipeg in his minutes 8-6. You’d think Colorado would take that sort of high-event hockey if they continue to stay on the right side of it. It’s certainly one way to combat Dallas’ offensive depth.

In net, Alexandar Georgiev was good enough … after Game 1, when he allowed seven goals on 23 shots and more than five goals more than expected. From there on out, he put up a save percentage of .932 and nearly three goals saved above expected. If he puts up those sorts of numbers against Dallas, the Stars will be in trouble. That’s still a big “if,” though.

The key matchup

Miro Heiskanen vs. Cale Makar

It’s easy to be enamored with potential playoff matchups, whether it will be MacKinnon versus Robertson or Johnston against Nichushkin in this series. But on the back end, between Makar and Heiskanen, it’s a power-versus-power matchup of two elite defensemen.

Makar comes into Round 2 with an impressive two goals and nine points in five games. On the surface, that’s as good as it gets after a short opening round. But off the scoresheet, Makar hasn’t been as dominant as expected.

Colorado outscored Winnipeg 5-4 in Makar’s five-on-five minutes, but the Avalanche were only around break-even in expected goals and trailed in scoring chances. It’s a similar story to his regular season. His scoring? Impeccable, no notes. But below the surface, his numbers just haven’t been as sparkling compared to the high bar his prior seasons have set.

Heiskanen isn’t a prolific scorer on the back end, but he played at the level of a true No. 1  throughout the regular season. Unlike Makar, the Stars were outscored 6-4 at five-on-five Round 1 in Heiskanen’s minutes. But Dallas was the better team in his minutes, with 53 percent of the expected goals share and a plus-21 scoring chance edge.

Since Tanev was acquired, Heiskanen’s workload has been somewhat eased. But he still faced a heavy dose of Jack Eichel against Vegas, so it’s safe to say he will be exposed to MacKinnon in Round 2, which means head-to-head minutes with Makar.

The bottom line

This has all the makings of a classic series, a battle between a star-studded offensive powerhouse and one of the league’s most complete teams.

This series will likely be tightly contested, but the early edge has to go to the Stars — it’s hard not to love a team that checks every box.


How these projections work
Understanding projection uncertainty 


Evolving Hockey
Natural Stat Trick
Hockey Reference
All Three Zones Tracking by Corey Sznajder

(Photo: Ron Chenoy / USA Today)

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