High-flying Stars face tough opening-round task in the tenacious Wild

Will Jason Robertson carry his elite scoring into the playoffs, or will Kirill Kaprizov and the Wild play first-round spoiler?

They may be two of the more lowkey markets in the NHL, but there's nothing quiet about the star power that will be on display in the first-round series between the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild.

The Stars, earning the second seed in the Central Division with 47 wins and 108 points, are a veteran squad rejuvenated by the emergence of record-breaking starlet Jason Robertson.

The Wild, finishing five points behind their opening-round opponents, have surrounded the electric Kirill Kaprizov with the necessary talent and depth to make some noise in the postseason.

Dallas is looking to bounce back after taking the Calgary Flames to seven games in the first round last season. They are only three years removed from a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2020, where they lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Minnesota has qualified for the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, but haven't advanced out of the opening round since 2014-15.

Any conversation about the Stars has to start with Robertson, who smashed franchise records for goals (46) and points (109) in a season as he etched his name among the game's elite. His line — with Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz — is one of the most dominant and productive in the whole league. Captain Jamie Benn turned back the clock to have his best season in five years with 33 goals and 78 points, while stud defenseman Miro Heiskanen broke out for a career-high 73-point season. Star goaltender Jake Oettinger held things down in Dallas' crease, sporting an impressive 37-11-0 record to go along with a .919 save percentage and 2.37 goals against average (sixth in the NHL in each category).

A pair of young superstars will vie for supremacy in the first round series between the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild. (Getty Images)
A pair of young superstars will vie for supremacy in the first round series between the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild. (Getty Images)

The Wild are not the offensive juggernaut their opponents are — their 239 goals on the season ranked 23rd in the NHL — but their resolute defensive game makes Dean Evason's squad a difficult, and often frustrating, one to match up with. Minnesota has allowed the sixth fewest goals in the league, and ranks fourth in wins (23) when being outshot, thanks in large part to Filip Gustavsson's remarkable .931 save percentage and 24.2 saves above expected, per Money Puck.

Kaprizov led the team in scoring with 75 points despite missing the final 15 games of the season with a lower-body injury. Second-year forward Matt Boldy took another big step in his development with a 31-goal season, veteran Mats Zuccarello recorded a steady 67-point campaign and Joel Eriksson Ek reached a career-high 61 points. The bottom falls out after this quartet, though, as no other Wild skater reached the 40-point mark this season.

Will they have enough firepower to outscore one of the most balanced groups in the NHL?

What have you done for me lately?

The Stars were as hot as any team in the league to end the season, going 8-2 over their last 10 games to comfortably secure the second seed in the Central Division, only one point behind the Colorado Avalanche for the division lead. Dallas outscored their opponents 34-17 in that span, with their power play operating at a remarkable 33.3-percent clip. Jason Robertson led the way with 18 points to put the cherry on top of his first career 100-point season.

The Wild, however, were less convincing in the final stretch of the season, going 5-3-2 over their last 10 heading into the postseason. Star netminder Marc-André Fleury has struggled with the season winding to a close, going 0-3-0 in the month April with an .892 save percentage and a 3.42 goals against average. His partner, Gustavsson, has been much stronger of late, sporting a .914 save percentage over four game this month. With recent form in mind, Gustavsson seems poised to get the nod to start the series in Dallas.

The Stars will win if...

If Robertson carries his elite production into the playoffs and his partnership with Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz continues to be dominant, the Stars can be confident in moving on to the next round.

The Wild will win if...

If Minnesota's depth scoring can continue to provide the production it did when Kirill Kaprizov was out of the lineup, and the Wild get the reliable goaltending they've been accustomed to this season, an upset can be in the cards.

Series hero

All signs point to this series being the true coming-out party for Robertson. He can single-handedly turn this series in his team's favour with some of the otherworldly offense he's displayed in his three years in the NHL.

The Fernando Pisani Trophy (unsung hero)

If the Wild pull this one out, there's a good chance Ryan Hartman would have a big part to play in it. Hartman came nowhere near matching his bonkers 34-goal 2021-22 season, but he did catch fire late in the year and has shown he can make a difference with his 200-foot game, grit and ability to score the odd dirty goal.

Prediction

Stars in six.