The Dallas Stars (thanks to Joel Kiviranta) find themselves in the Western Conference Final, just four wins from the Stanley Cup Final, for the first time in 12 years.
Twelve years is quite a long time ago.
Back then, that Western Conference Final saw the Stars fall to the eventual 2008 Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in six games. When the Red Wings skated off the ice at the American Airlines Center with the Clarence Campbell Bowl that evening, nobody could foresee that it would mark the final playoff game for the Stars for five long years.
Recapping all that has transpired since that evening in 2008 could fill a book. After all, Mike Modano, Marty Turco, and Jere Lehtinen would each play two additional seasons with the Stars following that loss. Then there was the bankruptcy, new ownership, new general managers, the debut of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, second-round losses, and multiple head coaches. That’s a long time and a lot of changes, complete with a few that we’ve all probably forgotten about as well.
Either way, the Stars are here now and that is all that really matters as the moment to puck drop in Game 1 draws near. We should all be familiar with how the Stars arrived at the rendezvous point that is the Western Conference Final. Winning an overtime Game 7 after squandering a 3-1 series lead to the Colorado Avalanche certainly created a level of drama that can’t be scripted.
However, the Stars were not alone in their feat, save for the drama and the storyline of a rookie coming into the lineup and recording the first Game 7 hat trick since a dude named Wayne Gretzky did it in 1993.
The Vegas Golden Knights arrived at the Western Conference Final — their second trip in three seasons — by surviving the Vancouver Canucks in seven games as well. The Golden Knights built their roster with superb top-end talent, depth only an expansion draft can provide, and stellar goaltending. All of that gave them a 3-1 series lead against the upstart Vancouver Canucks. Only the Canucks, like the Avalanche, failed to realize they were conquered, and rattled off two wins to force a decisive seventh game.
The Golden Knights finally did best a red-hot Thatcher Demko, while vanquishing a pesky Canucks team to advance. For their efforts, they earned a matchup with the rested (by a couple of hours) Dallas Stars team for the right to play for the aforementioned Clarence Campbell Bowl.
The Golden Knights present a host of challenges that the Stars will have to account for and then some, as this might be the deepest, most complete team they have faced so far.
Miro Heiskanen vs Mark Stone
With the elimination of the Nathan MacKinnons — I mean, the Colorado Avalanche — the Golden Knights have arguably the best forward left in the Western Conference. Mark Stone is a force, even if he does it in a different way than the speedy MacKinnon. Stone is a load to deal with at 6-foot-4, 219 pounds, and the 28-year-old is the prototypical power forward. A younger version of the Stars’ own Jamie Benn.
Through 15 postseason games Stone has recorded an impressive line of six goals and nine assists for fifteen points. That’s an average of a point per game. In the Vegas series against Vancouver, Stone recorded seven points, and was a constant threat in all situations. For reference, in the round robin matchup against the Stars, Stone recorded a pivotal goal and assist in the Golden Knights’ comeback victory.
With Stone, it is not all about goals and points, as he really does just about everything well. He’s not the most fleet of foot, but what he lacks in speed he makes up in power, strength, and smarts. Let’s consult the film.
Here's a full highlight reel of Mark Stone just straight up taking the puck from people and stick lifting the hell out of everyone this postseason. What a magnificent maniac he is pic.twitter.com/GYQPqmd0zP— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) September 5, 2020
These plays are only possible with superior positioning, high hockey IQ, and an insane level of work ethic. Stone possesses all of these attributes, plus the elite playmaking, goal-scoring, and game-breaking components that should make the Stars pay attention.
Which brings us to the Stars’ “X factor” — Miro Heiskanen.
Heiskanen had a series for the ages against the Avalanche, even if he was overshadowed by Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar. In the seven-game series, Heiskanen recorded at least a point in each game, finishing with nine total points. Equally as impressive is the fact that Heiskanen’s nine points trail MacKinnon by only three points (MacKinnon’s final total was 12) for the series’ point lead. In terms of overall playoff scoring, Heiskanen is the active league leader by a wide margin with 21 total points, which is also now the franchise record for a defenseman.
To put it mildly, Heiskanen is the key to the Stars’ success in this series. When he is great, the Stars have a better-than-good chance of winning, and when he’s just good, the Stars could lose the game. Heiskanen will be tasked with playing nearly 30 minutes a night, and he has averaged 25 minutes so far in the playoffs. He will also be tasked with matching up against Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, & Co. as the series goes along.
If the Stars expect to punch a ticket to the Stanley Cup Final, it will be on the back of Miro Heiskanen.
Depth vs Depth
This series has it all from the standpoint of roster construction. The Stars have top-end players on their roster, and to be fair, probably have more top-end talent than the Golden Knights can boast. However make no mistake, Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Reilly Smith, and Shea Theodore are every bit as good as the Stars’ top players.
Where this series probably hinges is beyond the first-line players and into the second and third lines. The Stars have the luxury of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov, but they also have Joe Pavelski, Roope Hintz, Denis Gurianov, and John Klingberg. In essence, the Stars are a deep team because they’ve been designed to be one. That is precisely why General Manager Jim Nill signed Corey Perry, why he assembled a checking line of Radek Faksa, Blake Comeau, and Andrew Cogliano, and why the Stars currently can survive the loss of Mattias Janmark with the addition of Joel Kiviranta.
On the other side of this coin, the Golden Knights have the same type of depth that the Stars can boast. Behind their marquee players are the likes of Jonathan Marchessault, Alex Tuch, Nate Schmidt, and William Karlsson. Their depth players are the product of the greatest expansion draft in NHL history, great trades from their management team, and proper deployment from their coaching staff. Even Ryan Reaves thrives on the Vegas roster because he’s been deployed on one of the most effective fourth lines in the league. The Golden Knights will be the deepest team the Stars have faced by far.
In reality, whichever team’s depth players can come out and establish their mark on the game will be the team that wins this series. Each team has the depth to pull it off, and as is the case in late rounds, top-end players are a factor, but depth players win games. The Stars better hope their role-players play exactly the role they are meant to because it is a safe bet that the Golden Knights will be playing theirs.
Goaltending and Systems
Until further notice Anton Khudobin is the man for the Stars as they look to secure their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2000. We’ve covered his numbers before, but after the second round Khudobin is sporting a 2.94 goals against average, and .909 save percentage. Not exactly world-beating numbers for the Dallas goaltender, as both metrics are well below his regular-season postings.
This is all to say that Khudobin has been good, not great, but good enough to advance the Stars past the second round. He’s made the saves he has to make, some the Stars had to have, but he’s allowed some soft goals as well. As is the life of an NHL goaltender. If the Stars are to advance, Khudobin will have to rebound a bit and steal a game or two for the Stars in this series. This is a requirement because as it presently stands, the Stars do not have the advantage between the pipes.
Robin Lehner has been spectacular for the Golden Knights in this playoff run. Lehner backstopped the New York Islanders to the Jennings Trophy (lowest goals allowed in a season) in 2018-19, and has carried that strong play to Vegas since he was traded from the Chicago Blackhawks earlier this year. So far Lehner has a sparkling 1.99 goals against average and .918 save percentage, including three shutouts in their series against the Canucks. By comparison, the Stars have yet to record a shutout victory.
So something has to give in this area if the Stars are to go on and win this series. It starts in two places:
1. Anton Khudobin has to improve in this series and give the Stars a solid performance.
2. The Stars’ team defense must improve and round back into form.
Since the playoffs began, the Stars have been a freewheeling, offensive juggernaut, but that has worked against them at times. In their second-round series with the Avalanche, the Stars surrendered four goals, five goals, six goals, with the lowest amount in the series being two goals against in Game 1. That is simply not good enough for a defensive team, and it will likely beat them in a series against a Vegas team with great goaltending.
The Stars must commit themselves to playing better team defense, tracking back as a five-man unit, and disrupting the cycle game that the Golden Knights will want to play. Now, this doesn’t mean that the Stars need to abandon the activation of the fourth defenseman, which has been the key to unlocking their offense. Simply, when the defenseman activates, a forward must stay back and cover for that defenseman until he can flow back into his position as the cycle plays itself out. It’s “Hockey 101” that the forward covers the defense in these situations, and the Stars were a little lazy in this aspect in the second round.
The Stars also must reactivate their trap game. They can modify it if they choose to increase more offense, but still try to clog the neutral zone to break up the speed displayed by Vegas. However, the real defense will come in the Stars’ own end, for what the Golden Knights lack in speed they make up in size and strength. The Stars must lean on the Golden Knights in the defensive zone to disrupt the cycle and regain possession. In their own zone, they must also limit Vegas’ ability to gain interior positioning from their cycle. The Avalanche were able to score on too many net-front shots from the point, so the Stars will have to help out Khudobin and clear the net-front without disrupting their own goaltender.
So there we have it.
Four wins stands between the Stars and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final that this franchise and its fanbase have been dreaming of for just over two decades.
Game 1 begins later today at 7 p.m. CT.