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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

On paper, the Nashville Predators appeared to be more formidable than the Dallas Stars as the second-round Blues opponent.

The Predators won the Central Division title with an experienced and talent-laden roster. They were playoff-tested, too, having reached the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals with many of the same core players.

But the NHL postseason takes place on choppy ice, not computer printouts. This spring is proving that the “it” factor is far more important than relative personnel strength.

And like the Blues, the Stars have it going on. They sputtered through the first half of the season, just like the Blues, before finding a winning identity down the stretch.

“They finished really strong, too,” Blues defenseman Colton Parayko said after practice Tuesday. “When you finish like that — we have it in here as well — everything seems to be going right, it’s a good feeling.”

The Stars didn’t have to fire their coach to trigger a turnaround, but they endured plenty of midseason turmoil. Chief executive officer Jim Lites unleashed a profane, for-the-record verbal attack on Dallas stars Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn in late December.

First-year coach Jim Montgomery appeared to reach wit’s end two weeks later. “I’m very frustrated that I have not been able to gain consistency in our performance, and I haven’t been able to change the culture of mediocrity,” he told reporters after a 3-1 loss to the Blues on Jan. 12.

The Stars sank to 23-21-4 on Jan. 17 and in danger of missing the playoffs for the ninth time in 11 years.

“We had a lot of changes this year and a lot of uncomfortable conversations throughout the year,” Seguin told reporters after Monday night’s victory over Nashville. “Guys came out of their comfort zones, and that’s what has made us a closer team.”

Finally the Stars came together and gained traction, finishing with a 20-11-3 flourish to grab the first wild-card spot. They lost two of their first three games to the Predators in the first playoff round, then won three consecutive games to advance.

They have a hot goaltender in Our Town’s Ben Bishop, who stopped 206 of the 218 shots he faced from Nashville. They can attack with Seguin centering Benn and Alexander Radulov on an elite top forward line.

John Klingberg, Esa Lindell and emerging star Miro Heiskanen provide skill and mobility on the blue line.

Their supporting cast veterans are excelling, too, most notably the tenacious checking line of Radek Faksa centering Blake Comeau and Andrew Cogliano. Young forwards Roope Hintz and Jason Dickinson have brought energy.

Collectively, the Stars got better as their series with Nashville progressed. So Monday night’s clinching 2-1 overtime victory was no fluke.

“I think the journey through the year toughens you up, and it definitely did for us,” Montgomery said during his postgame news conference. “You have to face adversity to get better as a group, especially when it’s your first time together.

“The trust has grown. The trust is players to players, players to coaches and coaches to players. It’s everyone.”

The Stars have joined the Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders as unlikely Cup contenders this spring. The Carolina Hurricanes are trying to join that disruptive club after extending the defending Cup champion Washington Capitals to the seventh game of their series Wednesday night.

“Momentum is probably the biggest thing,” Parayko said. “Just finding your stride at the right time, feeling good. That produces your best game, gives you your best chance. Those teams that caught something at the end of the year are continuing to push. That’s a common theme.”

As for the Predators, they joined the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins, Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets as major playoff disappointments this spring. We kept waiting for the Preds to get it together, but they didn’t, despite adding rental forwards Mikael Granlund and Wayne Simmonds before the trade deadline.

Superstars are supposed to give teams a playoff advantage, but as of Monday night 11 of the league’s top 17 scorers were on the outside looking in.

Nikita Kucherov, Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Johnny Gaudreau, Patrick Kane, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, Blake Wheeler, Aleksander Barkov, Brayden Point . . . many stars failed to reach the postseason or exited in the first round.

Strong team play and hot goaltending can negate impressive individual talent. So here we are, with the surging Blues playing the surging Stars with a ticket to the Final Four at stake.

“I feel like at this point in the playoffs, with eight teams remaining, that’s how all the teams are feeling now,” Parayko said. “That’s what’s tough about the playoffs — everyone is feeling good, everyone is continuing to push. We’ve got to try to take the momentum and use that advantage.”


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