It’s 9:12 pm Pacific on April 30, 2023. Yanni Gourde hunches over the right face-off circle near Kraken goaltender Philipp Grubauer. Mikko Rantanen leans in. 44 seconds remain in Game 7 of this first-round series between the Seattle Kraken and Colorado Avalanche. Seattle holds a 2-1 advantage on the scoreboard. Six Colorado skaters loom with the Avalanche net empty.
The puck drops. Rantanen touches his stick to the ice and wins the puck back to a diving Nathan MacKinnon, who directs the puck to Cale Makar lurking on the blue line. Colorado’s three biggest stars have touched the puck in a flash. Every single Colorado goal in the series had been either scored or assisted by MacKinnon, Rantanen, Makar, or fellow Avalanche standout Devon Toews. Makar moves the puck to Evan Rodrigues, who quickly throws it on net into a mass of netfront players.
The puck deflects and rims around the boards back to MacKinnon on the right, who attempts to cycle it back below the net. Adam Larsson attacks the puck, and with support from Gourde, stymies the play momentarily in the corner. 32 seconds. 27 seconds. Everyone is counting.
With increasing desperation, Colorado wins the puck to the blue line again, where Makar keeps it in the zone. Makar passes the puck high-low to MacKinnon, but again Seattle pressures the Avs superstar in the right corner. Gourde’s pressure deflects an attempted return pass to Makar and sends the puck toward linemate Oliver Bjorkstrand. Scoreless in the first six games, Bjorkstrand had scored both of Seattle’s goals in this one and threatened for more. He catches the puck with his stick and turns up ice, breaking out of the zone. 17 seconds.
Near the end of a marathon shift, Bjorkstrand is tracked down by Rodrigues, who tips the puck over to Makar. The young defenseman pivots back toward Grubauer and quickly re-enters the zone. Eight seconds. Artturi Lehkonen takes Makar’s pass but is pressured and sends the puck down the boards and behind the net. Five seconds.
The Avalanche attempt to recover, but there again is Gourde with a hard body check on the boards to shake the puck loose. He has played more than 20 minutes per game in the series (142:34 overall TOI), the most ice time of any Kraken forward, and spent about half of that time (68:39 overall TOI) with one of the hardest assignments in the sport: checking Nathan MacKinnon.
MacKinnon corrals the loose puck in the right corner. Two seconds. He attempts to center it, but the puck deflects away again with Gourde and Larsson reaching in.
It’s 9:13 pm Pacific now. The horn sounds. The usually stoic Grubauer leaps into the air and is quickly embraced in joy by the equally unflappable Kraken blueliner Jamie Oleksiak. Players pour off the bench. Kraken fans in Denver and across the Pacific Northwest raise their arms and cry out in jubilation. It’s the first ever playoff series win for the second-year franchise, against the defending Stanley Cup champions, as the largest underdogs anywhere in the postseason. Your author, staring at his phone in a silent, darkened driveway in Central Oregon, shouts into the black, open sky.
Exaltation for the Kraken organization and its fans.
9:16 pm. An email from NHL Public Relations hits the inbox of media members. The first game of the second playoff round, matching the Seattle Kraken and Dallas Stars, will begin in less than 46 hours. Puck drop in Dallas is Tuesday, May 2, at 6:30 pm Pacific.
Congratulations on winning a roller coaster series, Seattle hockey fans. Your reward? Let’s buckle you right back in. Welcome to playoff hockey.
Catching up with the Dallas Stars
Seattle and Dallas played three times in a two-week span in mid-March, with Seattle dropping the two games (one in overtime) in Seattle, and prevailing on a memorable Adam Larsson breakaway in Dallas in the teams’ most recent clash on March 21. After that overtime loss, Dallas closed out its season very well, posting a 9-2-0 record down the stretch.
The Stars defense shined during this run. Setting aside two empty-netters, the team allowed just 17 goals in those 11 games with a smothering 1.55 goals against average. That was a product of suffocating defensive play (Dallas skaters suppressed five-on-five shot quality against far better than they had over the first 70 games) and Dallas goaltenders, most notably Jake Oettinger, allowed 40 percent fewer goals than expected even in those rare circumstances where Dallas defenders conceded a shot at all.
This strong play carried over to Dallas’s first-round series against the Minnesota Wild. Aside from one empty-netter, Dallas allowed just 13 goals in six games and suppressed shot quality against at a rate 21 percent better than league average. Dallas was particularly staunch in the high-danger scoring areas between the face-off circles and at the front of the goal. For his part, Oettinger started all six games, tallied a .929 save percentage, and saved 4.72 goals more than expected, per Evolving Hockey. Dallas paired this sound defensive play with just enough offense to dispatch the Wild, 4-to-2, with the final win coming on Friday, April 28.
Snapshot: Kraken vs. Stars
Compared with the Colorado Avalanche, the Dallas Stars have a deeper roster of top-scoring talent, with six forwards notching more than twenty goals: Jason Robertson (46), Roope Hintz (37), Jamie Benn (33), Joe Pavelski (28), Wyatt Johnston (24), and Tyler Seguin (21). This gives the Stars the ability to deploy at least two threatening offensive lines, whereas it often seemed that Colorado only had one. Add in superstar two-way defenseman Miro Heiskanen and the Dallas Stars have a lineup with the ability to score their way out of problems.
Moving to the bottom half of the roster, however, Seattle again possesses the offensive advantage. This almost balances the overall 5-on-5 offensive profile of the teams, which stood just four goals apart in overall “expected” goal production across 82 games. The Kraken separated from Dallas in the regular season by converting their scoring chances into goals at a far higher rate at five-on-five. But with high-end scorers Jared McCann and Andre Burakovsky both out with injuries at the moment, it is unlikely that the Kraken will be able to rely on “finishing” their chances at an above-expected rate moving forward. (Regarding McCann: He is not currently on the trip with the Kraken, which suggests that the best-case scenario is likely a return for Game 3 or 4 in Seattle. But that is just speculation at this juncture.)
In terms of five-on-five shot quality against, the two teams are both very good and comparable. Per Evolving Hockey data, the Kraken allowed shots expected to create approximately 161 goals at five-on-five across 82 games (fifth best in the league), whereas Dallas allowed shots expected to create 162 goals (sixth best). That said, over the course of the regular season, Dallas actually allowed fifteen fewer goals than Seattle at five-on-five, in large part due to the sterling play of Oettinger.
Take the number: Stars players to watch
Young star forward Jason Robertson (No. 21) belongs in the discussion of the very upper echelon of players in the league. I would likely put him in the top 10, perhaps even top five, but he is rarely discussed that way. With 46 goals and 109 points, he also delivers strong, responsible defensive play. He’ll give the Kraken everything they can handle in this series.
But for Robertson, Roope Hintz (No. 24) would likely get more national attention too. Hintz is an elite goal scorer with very strong impacts driving offense at even strength and on the power play, as well as elite scoring touch finishing his own chances.
On the blue line Miro Heiskanen (No. 4) is about as skilled as they come in setting up scoring chances for his teammates with his passing. His 62 assists rank second on the team only behind Robertson. Heiskanen is also talented breaking out of his own zone and in transition, and he brings strong value on both special teams.
Beyond that trio of young “stars,” Dallas also has a stable of strong veteran players, led by forwards Jamie Benn (No. 14) and Joe Pavelski (No. 16). Pavelski appears to have recovered from a heavy hit sustained during the first round and will likely make his return to the ice in Game 1 of the series against the Kraken.
Finally, when all else fails, Dallas can rely on its goalie Jake Oettinger (No. 29). Over the course of the regular season, he ranked seventh in the league in goals saved above expected, and he has continued (or elevated) that play in the postseason.
Keys to the series: Stay Disciplined, Solve Oettinger
Dallas is a good team at even strength, but the Stars take their game to the next level on special teams. The team ranks in the top five in power-play conversion percentage (25 percent) and in penalty kill rate (83.5 percent).
Seattle, in contrast, was in the middle of the pack in both categories during the regular season. The Kraken actually outscored Colorado on special teams during their first-round series (4-3), but that was more due to the standout play of Philipp Grubauer in those situations than anything. Colorado generated good looks on the power play, but the German netminder usually had the answers.
Against an even more dangerous unit in Dallas, Seattle will need to stay disciplined and avoid manpower disadvantages.This is particularly true in the absence of McCann, who is almost as important as a defender and counter-strike threat on the penalty kill as he is on the power play. The Kraken have a much better chance to outscore the Stars at even strength than on special teams.
That said, Dallas goaltender Jake Oettinger makes scoring difficult in any context. The data suggests that Oettinger may be a bit weaker on shots from his right, and is just average at stopping slap shots, which are often preceded by cross-ice passes. This suggests that the Kraken may find more success the more they can get Oettinger to move across his crease, particularly left-to-right. It also suggests there may be a role for wing scorers like Daniel Sprong, Oliver Bjorkstrand, or Eeli Tolvanen to make some noise in this series.
Once again, the common wisdom among public analysts seems to be that the Kraken face the slimmest odds of any of the eight teams remaining to advance to the next round.
What do you think is the key to the series? What’s your prediction? Are you fired up for round two? Do you need a nap? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter at @sound_hockey or @DeepSeaHockey.