Series preview: Golden Knights face biggest test against Pete DeBoer and the Stars
The Western Conference Final series between the Vegas Golden Knights (51-22-9) and Dallas Stars (47-21-14) is sure to be an action-packed, star-studded matchup between two talented and deep teams.
It marks the fourth time the Golden Knights have reached the third round in six seasons. These teams squared off in one of those third-round matchups in 2020 in the bubble, with Dallas taking the series in five games. However, four of the five games were decided by one goal, and two required overtime.
Pete DeBoer, who was fired by the Golden Knights on May 16 last year and then hired by Dallas on June 21, will be standing behind a different bench this time around, as he and Bruce Cassidy have led their teams to the Western Conference Final in their first season with their respective clubs. DeBoer became the first coach to do so in his first year with four different teams.
He will not be the only familiar face, however.
Golden Knights assistant coach John Stevens was Dallas' assistant coach in the 2020 series; he was dismissed on May 20 last year and joined the Vegas coaching staff on June 28. Plus, defenseman Colin Miller as well as forward Evgenii Dadonov also will have a chance to go head-to-head against their former team.
This will be Vegas' third all-time playoff series against DeBoer, as the Golden Knights defeated San Jose in six games in 2018 and then fell to the Sharks in 2019 in the infamous Game 7 collapse featuring the phantom major penalty.
But this will be a completely different matchup, and it's sure to be one of the best battles of the postseason.
The Golden Knights, who have home-ice advantage, are 8-3-3 all-time against Dallas in the regular season.
How they got here: Stars
The Stars dropped Game 1 in their first-round series against the Minnesota Wild, losing 3-2 in double overtime on Ryan Hartman's game-winner. However, they bounced back with a convincing 7-3 win in Game 2 to even the series, lighting up Marc-Andre Fleury in his only start of the playoffs. Minnesota fought back and claimed a 5-1 victory in Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead, but Jake Oettinger stepped up in Dallas' three straight wins, stopping 82 of 85 shots and giving up just one total goal in Games 5 and 6.
The Stars had a little more trouble with the pesky Seattle Kraken in the second round, a series that required seven games. Dallas trailed 1-0 in the series for the second time in the playoffs despite Joe Pavelski's four-goal heroics in Game 1 after returning from a concussion that kept him out of the lineup for most of the first round; he scored those four goals one night before the Golden Knights yielded four goals to Leon Draisaitl in Game 1 against Edmonton. The Stars evened the series after trailing 1-0 as well as 2-1 before taking a 3-2 series lead in Game 5; the Kraken forced a Game 7 with 6-3 win on home ice in Game 6, but the Stars shut down Seattle's offense with a 2-1 series-clinching win in Game 7.
Oettinger had an uncharacteristically difficult series, giving up at least four goals on three occasions and getting yanked twice. However, he stepped up with a critical Game 7 performance, holding the Kraken off the board until the final 19 seconds of the third period.
Roope Hintz leads the Stars in scoring with 19 points, one behind Connor McDavid for the league lead. Pavelski has eight goals in eight games, and the Stars have gotten steady contributions from throughout the lineup. Deadline acquisition Max Domi is third on the team with 11 points, and eight players have at least nine: Hintz (19), Jason Robertson (12), Domi (11), Pavelski (10), Jamie Benn (10), Tyler Seguin (9), Dadonov (9) and Miro Heiskanen (9). Despite scoring 46 goals in the regular season, Robertson has just two in 13 games; he scored zero in the second-round matchup against Seattle but generated chances at a high pace.
How they got here: Golden Knights
In the first round, Vegas dispatched the Winnipeg Jets in five games, winning four straight after dropping Game 1. The Golden Knights were the only team to limit their first-round series to five games.
Mark Stone's resurgence after a difficult Game 1 performance helped the Golden Knights turn the tide in the series, especially as the chemistry between Stone and Chandler Stephenson was rekindled. The Golden Knights benefited from secondary scoring and got strong goaltending from "backup" Laurent Brossoit.
The Golden Knights' third-period collapse in Game 3 could have been a game-changer, but the Golden Knights fought back and won in double overtime courtesy of a Michael Amadio one-timer from the slot. It was a significant win for the Golden Knights on the road to retain momentum in the series. Vegas went 2-0 in Winnipeg and had a particularly dominant showing in the Game 5 elimination effort, a 4-1 decision.
The Golden Knights had a much more difficult time in the second round against the high-powered Edmonton Oilers, whose lethal power play gave Vegas fits throughout the series. However, the Golden Knights eventually made adjustments on the penalty kill that limited the Oilers' superstar players, and Vegas was the better team at 5-on-5. Brossoit got injured in Game 3, but Adin Hill came in and was spectacular, particularly in the third period of Game 6, where he was absolutely lights-out. He ended the Oilers' season with 38 consecutive saves after a difficult opening three minutes.
But it was Jonathan Marchessault's second-period natural hat trick that made the biggest difference in the game. The Misfits – Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith – accounted for all five goals in the pivotal Game 6 win. Marchessault and Smith finally broke through extended scoring droughts, with Marchessault scoring twice in Game 3 and three times in Game 6, while Smith lit the lamp in Games 5 and 6. Karlsson played a monumental role in shutting down Edmonton's offensive dynamos. Jack Eichel had a particularly effective series on both sides of the puck; he was responsible defensively and helped the top line lead the way in the series with a combined 23 points.
Eichel leads the way for Vegas with 14 points in his first 11 postseason games. Stone has 12 points, Stephenson and Marchessault have 10, and Ivan Barbashev has nine.
Second round: by the numbers
Vegas: 3.67 (4th)
Dallas: 3.71 (3rd)
Vegas: 29.5 (5th)
Dallas: 27.9 (7th)
Vegas: 16.7 percent (6th)
Dallas: 23.5 percent (3rd)
Vegas: Eichel (3-6–9), Marchessault (5-3–8), Barbashev (3-3–6), Smith (2-3–5)
Dallas: Pavelski (8-1–9), Domi (2-6–8), Hintz (4-3–7), Thomas Harley (1-6–7)
Vegas: 3.17 (4th)
Dallas: 3.71 (6th)
Vegas: 33.2 (2nd)
Dallas: 28.3 (7th)
Vegas: 60.9 percent (8th)
Dallas: 85.7 percent (2nd)
The Golden Knights and Stars were held to zero power-play goals in the regular-season matchup, with Vegas going 8-for-8 on the penalty kill and Dallas stopping all six of the Golden Knights' opportunities. The Golden Knights had zero skaters with more than one point, while Dallas had three players with multiple points in the three-game series: Benn scored a goal and added two assists, Ty Dellandrea managed three helpers and Joel Kiviranta scored twice. Hill did not face Dallas this season; Jonathan Quick, Brossoit and Logan Thompson started for Vegas in the three games. Oettinger went 3-0-0 with a 0.96 goals-against average, a .967 save percentage and one shutout.
Jan. 16: Stars 4, Golden Knights 0
This marked the first time the Golden Knights were shut out in the regular season, and it was one of the club's worst efforts of the year in DeBoer's return to T-Mobile Arena.
Dallas: Benn, Kiviranta, Ryan Suter, Seguin
Feb. 25: Stars 3, Golden Knights 2 (SO)
The Golden Knights gave up a goal with just 38 seconds remaining in the third period, later losing in a shootout.
Vegas: Amadio, Eichel
Dallas: Wyatt Johnston, Hintz
April 8: Stars 2, Golden Knights 1 (SO)
The Golden Knights lost their second straight game against Dallas in a shootout but were able to clinch home-ice advantage in the first round with the point. It was Quick's final start of the regular season; he stopped 24 of 25 shots but got zero goal support from his teammates in the shootout.
Adin Hill was pivotal for the Golden Knights in the second-round matchup against Edmonton. He went 3-1 with a 2.19 goals-against average and .934 save percentage in the series and finished the regular season with a 16-7-1 record as well as a 2.50 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in 25 starts. He helped the Golden Knights give up just one goal on Edmonton's five-minute major in Game 5, a 4-3 win, and he stopped 38 consecutive shots in Game 6 after giving up a goal on each of the Oilers' first two shots of the game. For 57:17, he was a brick wall in the club's most important game of the season.
"He was incredible," Nicolas Hague said about Hill after Game 6. "We knew we were gonna need a couple big saves; [the Oilers] certainly weren't gonna go away without a big push, and they definitely had that push. And when we did break down, Hilly came up with a handful and kept it out, so that gets us feeling good and confident that we can close that game out."
The Golden Knights had to hold on to leads in the third periods of Games 5 and 6, and Hill held the Oilers to just one total goal in 40 minutes of intense pressure. That lone goal came during Edmonton's five-minute major; otherwise, he was perfect, and he came through with his best stretch of the season in the third period of Game 6. He finished the series clincher with a .950 save percentage.
"He stepped up, and you're not advancing without that," Bruce Cassidy said. "You need goaltending, and it's been a good story for us this year no matter who's gone in there. And good for Adin. He's a young guy that wants to establish himself full-time in the league, and the opportunity comes and he was ready. That's the part I'm impressed by, is he was ready to play, to go into a really difficult atmosphere against the top scoring team in the National Hockey League."
The Golden Knights have exceeded expectations in net all season despite the goalie carousel; however, Cassidy's goalie-friendly system has helped overcome the revolving door in the crease, allowing the Golden Knights to play well in front of five different starters.
Hill, who turned 27 on May 11, feels good about his game going into this series.
"I have worked very hard my whole life obviously to get to the NHL and to be here," he said. "It's exciting being on a team that's this good and has a chance to really do it all; I'm grateful and I'm excited about it."
Jake Oettinger is an elite goaltender who has won 30-plus wins in back-to-back seasons. He went 37-11-11 with a 2.37 goals-against average, a .919 save percentage and five shutouts this year. However, he struggled in the second-round series against Seattle, giving up at least four goals three times and getting pulled twice. That being said, he came through with a clutch 22-save performance in the Stars' 2-1 Game 7 victory to close out the series.
In the first round, Oettinger stopped 82 of 85 shots in three straight wins in Games 4-6 to help the Stars advance past the Wild after trailing 2-1 in the best-of-seven series. He is 8-5 with a 2.75 goals-against average and .903 save percentage in 13 starts this postseason. Scott Wedgewood stopped 15 of 18 shots in two relief appearances in the second round.
Oettinger went 3-0 against the Golden Knights during the regular season; he managed an elite 0.96 goals-against average and .967 save percentage and recorded one shutout.
Keys to the series
Stay the course
The Golden Knights don't have to make a lot of drastic changes in this series; the club has found ways to win all year, including in the playoffs, and that will be vital in this matchup as well. That being said, this will be the deepest team Vegas has faced, so it will be particularly important to stick to the game plan.
That means controlling play at 5-on-5 and avoiding undisciplined penalties and retaliation calls.
The Golden Knights' penalty kill improved as the Edmonton series wore on; though no power play has ever matched the Oilers' efficiency, the Golden Knights will go up against a dangerous Stars power play that has converted on 31.7 percent of its opportunities, the best rate among the four remaining playoff teams.
Once again, staying out of the box will be imperative. Not only will it help Vegas avoid being shorthanded, but it will help Vegas keep this series at 5-on-5, where the Golden Knights have outscored opponents 30-15 in the postseason.
That means going to the net, scoring greasy goals and capitalizing on scoring chances as well as being hard on the forecheck, getting pucks deep and going to work offensively.
The Stars have been stingy defensively, with their overall numbers taking a hit because of some shaky performances by Oettinger. But in reality, the Stars have given up the fewest expected goals per 60 (2.19) in the playoffs as well as the second-fewest high-danger chances (9.18).
The Golden Knights scored a number of critical goals from in tight in the late stages of the second-round series against Edmonton, which paid a major role in helping Vegas advance; replicating that effort will be important against Dallas. The Golden Knights will have to make the most of the opportunities they do generate, and many of them may come on the rush. Dallas defends the blue line well, but Vegas has found a way to score big goals throughout the playoffs. That will be more vital than ever in this series.
That means rolling four lines and relying on depth.
The Stars have three scoring lines with a fourth line of hard-nosed players; their depth and roster makeup resembles Vegas'. However, their fourth line has struggled in the playoffs, and Dallas' middle six can't quite match the level of talent scattered throughout Vegas' top nine, with the pairs of Eichel and Marchessault, Stone and Stephenson and Karlsson and Smith.
Both teams have strong blue lines. The Stars have arguably the best defenseman in the series in Heiskanen, but the Golden Knights have two No. 1 defensemen in Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore. Their partners – Alec Martinez and Brayden McNabb – are strong stay-at-home defenders, allowing them to be more involved offensively. The third pairing of Hague and Zach Whitecloud has played very well.
Cassidy's ice time allocation in Game 6 is perhaps the best indication of the strength of that depth.
That's because the player who led all Vegas skaters in ice time was not one you'd expect. It wasn't Pietrangelo in his return to the lineup following a one-game suspension. It wasn't Martinez, who led the league in blocked shots during the regular season and has a history of clutch playoff performances. It also wasn't captain Stone, the defensive stalwart known as Wild Bill or the responsible two-way speedster Stephenson.
The player who led all Vegas skaters in ice time was none other than Hague, who played a team-high 23:12.
Obviously, Hague is not the most important player on the team, but it speaks to Vegas' depth; the fact that he led all Golden Knights skaters in a decisive Game 6 victory is quite a statement, and it bodes well for Vegas' chances moving forward.
That's not to say that the Stars don't have depth; they absolutely do. But that doesn't change the fact that Vegas needs contributions from throughout its lineup and needs everyone to step up both defensively and offensively.
That means helping Hill clear pucks and preventing high-danger chances in tight when possible.
It also means maintaining vigilance, preserving the level of calm Cassidy has instilled in this club throughout the season, making necessary adjustments during intermissions and between games and never losing focus of the big picture.
The Golden Knights have been a balanced team all season and especially in the playoffs. Different players have stepped up in different games.
The Golden Knights have been resilient and have battled back on multiple occasions; in fact, they did so in three of their four wins in the second-round matchup against Edmonton.
"I think it's our resilience," Marchessault said about Vegas' series win against Edmonton. "Our 5-on-5 game, I think it's been great all year, and I think we have a lot of confidence doing that too. I mean, it shows. We were down 1-0 and 2-1 quite often in [the Edmonton] series, and we battled back, and I think it just shows how resilient that we are and just the leadership that we have on the team too. We have a lot of older guys on the team [who] have been through a lot of situations, and we don't panic. And honestly, it's one of our strengths, and it's definitely going to help in the future here."
Vegas has to be diligent defensively and can't take shifts off. The Stars have three lines that can produce and have one of the best lines in the game with their top-line trio of Hintz, Pavelski and Robertson. But veterans Benn and Seguin have had resurgent seasons, Domi and Dadonov have contributed after coming over at the deadline, Johnston had an impressive rookie campaign and continues to play well, and defenseman Harley has provided a key boost offensively. Heiskanen and Oettinger are shut-down players and will make life difficult on the Golden Knights.
"We don't win if we don't defend well," Cassidy said, admitting that Vegas didn't have a perfect 60-minute effort defensively in the Edmonton series. "We value defending. And we talked about it in training camp; I don't think you can win this time of year [without it]. You need to score; it's not the old NHL where it's 2-1 or 3-2; you need to score to win. But the defending part is key, and we've built in how we want to do it, and I credit the guys for believing in it. And they've tried to play that way all year; we've done it with a number of different goalies. ... Any time your goalie makes saves, you always look like you defend well better. And the opposite is true too. But in general, we take a lot of pride in that."
It will not be easy, but the Golden Knights have shown an ability to overcome adversity all season. They will need to do the same in this matchup.
It's going to take a complete team effort for 60 minutes every night to keep pace with Dallas. The Stars have shown flaws in the postseason, but DeBoer's structured shot-suppressing system that Vegas fans will be familiar with will make it difficult for Vegas to generate chances. Even though Dallas is good at defending in transition, the Golden Knights will have to take advantage of opportunities on the rush, which could play a key role in the series.
Cassidy's adjustments and judgment have been key all year. His ability to overcome injuries, particularly in the crease, has been impressive (shoutout to goalie coach Sean Burke), and he has maintained an environment where players are loose every day. That's key especially at this time of year when the pressure is at an all-time high.
Cassidy's decision late in the second round to move Nicolas Roy to the second line was a sound decision; he also left Hill in Game 6 after giving up two goals on two shots. Throwing Teddy Blueger in the mix late in the series also paid dividends, as Blueger provided Vegas with more defensive stability. His faceoff prowess also will be useful against the Stars, who are the best faceoff team in the playoffs.
All the little pieces matter, and Cassidy and the Golden Knights have done an excellent job taking care of the details. But that will be easier said than done against a team that comes much closer to matching Vegas' depth, structure and ability to battle back.
Play with a lead
The Golden Knights have given up the first goal in eight of 11 postseason games; Vegas is a combined 5-3 when trailing 1-0 and 3-0 when scoring first.
The Stars' numbers are more straightforward, however. Dallas is 8-1 when scoring the first goal and 0-4 when surrendering it.
That means scoring first has been a critical factor in deciding the outcome of games for the Stars; though it hasn't been for Vegas, it's still something the Golden Knights will need to put more emphasis on given the significant upgrade in Dallas' crease. Vegas only scored first in one of six games against Edmonton, but quick-response goals helped the Golden Knights overcome early momentum surges. Goals could be few and far between in this matchup, so getting an early lead rather than chasing could be a significant factor.
The Golden Knights will have to work collectively to keep the puck out of the net, and that means using their size on the blue line to their advantage, especially in helping Hill around the crease. The Stars feed the puck from low to high to get point shots, where they look for tips and deflections in the slot; Pavelski is one of the best net-front players of all time and will be a threat for deflection goals every time he's on the ice.
Vegas has to account for his whereabouts and help Hill contain him.
Cassidy's goalie-friendly system has the Vegas rearguards collapsing in to protect the area around the net. Boxing out and clearing rebounds will be critical, as will getting in shooting lanes, which is something Vegas has done well season. Martinez and McNabb were first and second in the NHL in blocks during the regular season. The Golden Knights will have to be physical, win battles around the net, lift sticks, stay in position and make strong first passes to clear the zone. Dallas could have extended shifts in the offensive zone, but keeping the Stars to the perimeter and taking care of the area around the net – despite Pavelski's virtually-unparalleled ability to get his stick on pucks for redirections – will be important in what could be a very tightly-checked and evenly-matched series.
William Karlsson: Karlsson has been one of Vegas' most important players throughout the playoffs. He had a team-high four goals in the first round but was even more crucial in the second round, as his impact in the defensive end proved to be a game-changer. In fact, by the end of the series, the Oilers were keeping McDavid on the bench while Karlsson was on the ice to avoid the matchup.
"That tells you what they think of William Karlsson," Cassidy said.
DeBoer has an advantage in that he is familiar with this team, which should make for an interesting series matchup-wise. However, the Golden Knights have four lines capable of playing strong defensively, especially with Blueger's insertion into the lineup. The second line of Karlsson, Smith and Roy very well could be Cassidy's go-to to take on the Stars' top line, but using Stone and Stephenson or even Eichel is a possibility as well. The fact is, however, that Karlsson played a dramatic role in shutting down Edmonton's top stars, and that didn't prevent his line from chipping in offensively. Now that Smith has goals in back-to-back games, Karlsson could be an X-Factor once again in this matchup.
Jack Eichel: Eichel leads the Golden Knights with 14 points in his first 11 postseason games and is not only relishing the chance to compete for the Stanley Cup but thriving in the playoff environment. He has demonstrated excellent poise with the puck to set up plays and extend zone time. He has made stellar defensive plays at key moments; his diving poke check on Draisaitl with 5:16 left in the second period in Game 6 was just one example of his commitment to a 200-foot game, and he showed no hesitation and going right after McDavid in the final minutes of regulation in multiple games.
He and the top line dominated; they combined for 23 points and effectively shut down Draisaitl after he scored four goals in Game 1.
Additionally, no Vegas forward logged more ice time than Eichel (17:35) in Game 6. Given the experience and skill throughout Vegas' lineup, that's not only a testament to Vegas' depth and to Eichel's ability but to the trust Cassidy has in Eichel.
"I think Jack is fully invested defensively and has been since October," Cassidy said. "He wants the puck and he wants to make plays. ... The guy wants to win. He wants to be part of a winning team and a winning culture, and he's doing that. He's doing his part. He's not asked to carry the team on his back; nobody is on our team. ... He has to be one of the guys that plays well."
Eichel has been a 5-on-5 stud for the Golden Knights throughout the playoffs, and they will need his monster two-way play to continue in this matchup.
Jake Oettinger: The Golden Knights have gotten the best of both starting netminders they've faced this postseason, but that very well could change in this third-round matchup. Oettinger struggled against Seattle but has rediscovered his game to close out two series during the playoffs, and his numbers against Vegas in the regular season were dominant. Goaltending likely will be even more relevant in this series, especially considering both teams have depth, size and plenty of skill.
Jason Robertson: Robertson is one of the best young players in the game, but he is off to a rough start to the postseason results-wise. He has 24 individual scoring chances at 5-on-5 but just two goals, including zero in the second round. However, his play in Game 7 could be a sign that a breakthrough is imminent. Either way, his lack of production thus far is either a very good or a very bad thing for the Golden Knights.
On the one hand, if Robertson is struggling, that helps alleviate one of Dallas' biggest offensive threats. However, it also means that the Stars have reached the third round without contributions from arguably their best player. Even though he hasn't been scoring, he's generating chances at a high rate; much like Marchessault, the dam could break any day for Robertson, which would be a massive boost for the Stars. He plays on one of the best lines in hockey, and Hintz and Pavelski have been on fire, picking up the slack in a big way. If Robertson gets going, that line will be a lot to handle. Having said that, the Golden Knights are coming off a series against some of the best players in the world, so their coverage of Dallas' top line will have to mirror their handling of McDavid and Draisaitl.
Miro Heiskanen: Heiskanen is arguably the best defender in the series. Though the Golden Knights may have a deeper blue line, Heiskanen stands out as a top blueliner in the NHL. He has played more minutes than every other skater in the playoffs and leads everyone in average ice time with 28:15 per game. He's a threat offensively, is a brilliant skater and has great 200-foot hockey sense. He will be a catalyst for the Stars and will play very heavy minutes against Vegas' best offensive players. He has the talent and capability to frustrate Vegas, and he's no slouch offensively with nine assists, including seven on the power play. Heiskanen recorded a career-best 73 points during the regular season.
For the Stars, forecheck could play a significant factor in the series, as the Oilers' forecheck gave Vegas a lot of trouble in the second round. At times, the Golden Knights were overwhelmed by Edmonton's speed and puck pursuit, and it forced them to take penalties and kept them hemmed in their end. If the Stars can mimic that level of pressure, Vegas could find itself relying on special-teams play, which would be far from ideal.
The Golden Knights have to stick to what has worked for them all year. Once again, they are at a disadvantage in the special-teams game, so keeping play at 5-on-5 will be of great significance. The Golden Knights need contributions from up and down the lineup; there is a lot of starpower in this matchup, but the Stars have the edge in net, which means Hill will need to be at his best.
This series could go the distance, and it could go either way. Both teams are hungry, both teams are talented and both teams have a strong chance to win the Stanley Cup this year. The Golden Knights will have their hands full, and it will be a very demanding series.
After the Game 6 victory in Edmonton, Marchessault was very clear that Vegas is not done.
"When you think about it, we're only halfway done to our goal here," he said. "There's a lot of work left to do."
That starts tonight.
Ivan Barbashev – Jack Eichel – Jonathan Marchessault
Reilly Smith – William Karlsson – Nicolas Roy
Brett Howden – Chandler Stephenson – Mark Stone
William Carrier – Teddy Blueger – Keegan Kolesar
Alec Martinez – Alex Pietrangelo
Brayden McNabb – Shea Theodore
Nicolas Hague – Zach Whitecloud
Jason Robertson – Roope Hintz – Joe Pavelski
Mason Marchment – Max Domi – Tyler Seguin
Jamie Benn – Wyatt Johnston – Evgenii Dadonov
Joel Kiviranta – Radek Faksa – Luke Glendening
Ryan Suter – Miro Heiskanen
Esa Lindell – Colin Miller
Thomas Harley – Joel Hanley
How to watch Game 1
Game 1: Golden Knights vs. Stars
When: 5:30 p.m. PT
Where: T-Mobile Arena – Las Vegas, NV
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM