When the calendar sat on Aug. 3, you didn’t think this would be the matchup.
Sure, it was open house in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Twenty-four teams started in Edmonton and Toronto with an anything-can-happen mentality.
But no one thought the Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars would meet in the Western Conference Final when the dust settled.
Vegas, yes. The Golden Knights should’ve been here. The expectation on Jan. 15, when Peter DeBoer replaced Gerard Gallant, was set. The expectation on Feb. 24, when the Golden Knights traded for Robin Lehner, was raised. Anything short might have been an unmitigated disaster.
For the second time in three years, Vegas is a part of the Final Four. Mission accomplished, for now.
Dallas, not so much. The Stars lost six in a row and seven of nine before the pause — they scored nine goals total during their six-game losing streak. They went 1-2-0 in the round robin and fell behind 2-1 in their first-round series against the Calgary Flames.
Then the Dallas offense rose from the ashes and burned everything in sight.
Dallas has scored at least five goals in six of its past 10 games; the Stars outscored Calgary 14-8 in the three straight wins to close the series, then jumped to a 3-1 lead over the Colorado Avalanche with 19 goals.
The injury-plagued Avalanche rallied to force a Game 7, but Dallas survived with a 5-4 overtime victory thanks to a hat trick from Joel Kiviranta.
“When you looked at Dallas during the season, you kind of scratched your head why they weren’t creating offense with the personnel they had. It didn’t make a lot ofsense,” DeBoer said. “The fact they put that piece together since we came back doesn’t surprise me. They’re firing on all cylinders. It’s going to be a great test.”
These are two completely different teams than when they faced off over a month ago. It’s also going to be a fun matchup, one that will be fun particularly for this author, and one that might be a back-and-forth affair for the majority.
Contrast in goalies
It’s Robin Lehner’s net the rest of the way.
Unless he turns into a pumpkin or takes a long panda-like nap (they do not hibernate, thank you Google), it’s unlikely we’ll see Marc-Andre Fleury these playoffs, or in a Golden Knights uniform ever again.
Lehner made 14 saves in Game 7 on Friday, just another instance in not seeing many shots this postseason. In 12 starts (8-4), Lehner has seen at least 30 shots only twice (Colorado in the round-robin, Game 3 against Vancouver). Hence why he was trusted enough to get the back-to-back in Games 6 and 7 and why he’ll be ready for Sunday.
“I can’t tell you how hard a game that is for a goalie to play, when you’re not getting any action, your team’s peppering the other team and you’re waiting,” DeBoer said of Lehner’s play in Game 7. “That’s why I love Robin’s game. He doesn’t chase it, he doesn’t look for it.”
For the Stars, it looks like Anton Khudobin will be the Game 1 starter. Dallas interim coach Rick Bowness said Saturday that starting goalie Ben Bishop remains unfit to play. Bowness’ decision to play start Bishop in Game 5 against Colorado nearly cost the Stars the series. Khudobin has started all but one playoff game to this point (8-5, 2.94 GAA, .909 save percentage) and as noted, has gotten major help from the players in front of him.
“[Khudobin] has been great in the playoffs and the season. He always gives us a chance to win the game,” said Stars defenseman Esa Lindell. “He’s been a huge part of the team, and we trust him, for sure.”
Bishop made 28 saves in the round-robin matchup between the clubs, but allowed three goals in the third period with Vegas winning 5-3.
Lehner is going to provide the toughest battle Dallas has faced. No disrespect to Cam Talbot and Michael Hutchinson, but Dallas exploited those weaknesses at the right time. Lehner is coming off a three-shutout performance in the second round with his GAA down to 1.99 this postseason.
“They’re four lines deep, very active, mobile defense, and clearly getting outstanding goaltending,” said Stars interim coach Rick Bowness. “This is a whole new challenge for us.”
The Golden Knights are going to test Khudobin if the second round is any indication. Vegas’ shot total each game, in order — 39, 40, 34, 33, 43, 48, 34. Vegas did a better job in Game 7 getting traffic in front of Demko and it paid off. A similar gameplan could replicate the results.
The Golden Knights are not going to be able to completely neutralize Dallas and keep them quiet in the shot department like they did Vancouver, but it’s hard to think they can’t win this series if they don’t play the same way.
Superstars in the making on the blue line
DeBoer said Friday that he was going to need a drink before thinking about the Stars.
Drink has been had, and the Stars are in the on-deck circle. And just when DeBoer thought planning for one young star defenseman in Quinn Hughes was hard work, he has to prepare his team for a more dynamic challenge — 21-year-old Miro Heiskanen.
To say the former No. 3 overall pick has turned the corner would be a bigger understatement than Texas. Heiskanen leads all defensemen in points with 21 (five goals, 16 assists) and he’s scored in all but three games this postseason; he’s currently on an eight-game point streak.
Much like Heiskanen carrying the scoring load for Dallas, Shea Theodore has emerged as a leading Conn Smythe favorite for the Golden Knights with 16 points. His six goals lead all defensemen, highlighted by his series clincher on Friday.
His 11 takeaways are most among defensemen left in the field, while he’s generating 3.8 expected goals in the postseason. It helps he was the Thatcher Demko killer; the Golden Knights scored twice in a span of 173:52 between Games 5-7, both scored by Theodore.
“He’s turning into a Norris-caliber defenseman right before our eyes,” DeBoer said. “He’s going to be in that conversation for a long time. The proudest thing of this group I am is that no piece is greater than the whole. Shea is a great piece for us, but our strength is in our team and the depth and how these guys work for each other.”
Bowness said having four players join the rush is becoming the norm in the league, and having guys like Heiskanen and Theodore are proving to be difference makers.
“It’s a much faster game than it’s ever been,” Bowness said. “The young kids coming into our league today, they’re far more composed and less intimidated by playing in our league. The whole change has been how the league has changed the last eight years. You need a mobile defense, a big stay-at-home defenseman ... I’m not surprised what we’re seeing. It’s great for our league. The guys we’re talking about ... they’re tough to coach against, but they’re very exciting to watch.”
Two franchises, two different paths
The Golden Knights are in the Western Conference Final for the second time in three seasons. Albeit in a bubble, it’s an accomplishment worth acknowledging for a three-year franchise. Four more wins means they’re in the Stanley Cup Final for the second time with as great a chance to win the whole enchilada than they did in 2018.
Meanwhile, it’s been 12 years since the Stars were even in the Western Conference Final (shoutout to Brenden Morrow in the fourth overtime). Dallas hasn’t seen the Cup Final since 2000 when it was trying to repeat as champions after Brett Hull never stepped in the crease in 1999.
You’re welcome Stars fans, I’m on your side.
“I know they’re the favorites ... as they should be. That’s fine,” Bowness said. “We’ve been the underdog in the other two series’ as well. The challenges will be this is a deep team. They’re going to come at us.”
The success has been a long-winded journey for the Stars, one that didn’t involve losing to the St. Louis Blues in Game 7 in the second round for once. Dallas hasn’t had a lot to cheer for in the past 19 years. Even if it meant getting by an injury-ravaged Colorado team to get here, it doesn’t matter. The Stars are in the final four and that’s all that shows in the record books.
But the Golden Knights have unfinished business of their own. Never mind the path taken to get there; just accept the fact that they’re back in the conference final. No matter who the coach is, no matter who’s in goal, no matter how the team looks. The name of the game is winning. The Golden Knights have won 11 games this postseason to put themselves in the position to be the No. 1 seed in the West and draw closer to getting back to the Final.
Four teams are in Edmonton. In two weeks, it’ll be down to two. If the Golden Knights play the way they have to get to this point, they’ll be one of those two.
“That series was emotional for us, not getting results when we thought we played the right way,” said defenseman Nick Holden. “It helps that it is a quick turnaround because we feel we have been playing well the last few games, and hopefully we can roll into tomorrow doing the same thing.”
Dallas: At 23 years old, Denis Gurianov leads the Stars with eight playoff goals. He’s been one of the reasons why Dallas’ offense has risen from the dead. Vegas will focus its attention on the top line, as expected. Gurianov will need to continue his hot pace while the attention is elsewhere.
Vegas: After producing at a point-per-game pace in the first round, Jonathan Marchessault had only two assists against Vancouver. He has to get going if the Knights want assurance that they’ll win this series. He’s been getting a lot of shots, but nothing has crossed the line. Getting a goal could open the floodgates as it has in the past for Marchessault.
Game 1 projected lineups
Jamie Benn — Tyler Seguin — Alexander Radulov
Mattias Janmark — Joe Pavelski — Denis Gurianov
Jason Dickinson — Roope Hintz — Corey Perry
Joel Kiviranta — Radek Faksa — Blake Comeau
Esa Lindell — John Klingberg
Jamie Oleksiak — Miro Heiskanen
Andrej Sekera — Taylor Fedun
Max Pacioretty — Chandler Stephenson — Mark Stone
Jonathan Marchessault — William Karlsson — Reilly Smith
Nicolas Roy — Paul Stastny — Alex Tuch
William Carrier — Tomas Nosek — Nick Cousins
Brayden McNabb — Nate Schmidt
Alec Martinez — Shea Theodore
Nick Holden — Zach Whitecloud
Suspended: Ryan Reaves
How to watch
Time: 5 p.m.
TV: NBC, NHL.TV
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM
Opposing blog: Defending Big D