A week ago, it looked all but certain that the Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights would neatly wrap up their respective Round 2 series and meet in the Western Conference Final after a pair of dominant post-season performances. After all, both clubs were up 3-1 in the Edmonton bubble after taking swift action against their challengers and looking to close things out in five games each.
But... that's when things got a little dicey.
Nathan MacKinnon and the Colorado Avalanche pushed back and had the Stars on the edge before Dallas settled the score in overtime of Game 7 thanks to an unexpected hero in Finnish forward Joel Kiviranta. The biggest hero in the Golden Knights' second-round series, meanwhile, was on the other team. Vegas ran into a nearly unsolvable brick wall named Thatcher Demko, the rookie netminder behind the Vancouver Canucks' incredible rallying efforts.
It took three extra games, but the Stars and Golden Knights each managed to right their wrongs, correct their trajectories, and come out on top. Both clubs now meet for that Western Conference Final we anticipated one week ago -- only, with a few extra games played, a couple more bruises incurred, and a bit more battle hardened -- and well-aware of what it feels like to suddenly find yourself on the brink of going home.
(Mark Stone has seen some things.)
Mark Stone’s reaction to Thatcher Demko is my reaction to everything in 2020. pic.twitter.com/zKdNWsCb3R
— (@dalter) September 5, 2020
A fresh start is upon them now as they go head-to-head with a berth in the Stanley Cup Final on the line. Here's a preview of how the best in the West match up:
Playoff 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick
Dallas: 48.21 CF%, 48.53 GF%, 90.67 SV%, 9.04 SH%, 0.997 PDO
Vegas: 60.59 CF%, 59.65 GF%, 91.42 SV%, 7.78 SH%, 0.992 PDO
TEAM STATS (POST-SEASON)
Dallas: 28.3 PP%, 82.3 PK%, 53 GF, 56 GA
Vegas: 20.5 PP%, 87.8 PK%, 49 GF, 35 GA
How Dallas got here
*Googles Joel Kiviranta*
As Game 7 of Dallas's second-round series versus Colorado shifted into overtime, it was starting to feel a little... familiar. A year ago, the Stars found themselves on the losing end of an overtime battle against the Blues, falling just one goal shy of halting St. Louis's historic Stanley Cup run. Redemption came Friday night, more than a year after last spring's heartbreak, thanks to an incredible performance from Kiviranta, who completed his first-career NHL hat trick with the overtime winner to propel Dallas past their demons and into the Western Conference Final after frittering away a 3-1 series lead and coming dangerously close to a total collapse.
This Dallas team that is now descending upon the Western Conference Final is clearly a different club than it was all season, and even just a month ago. The Stars' downfall throughout 2019-20 has been scoring -- in that, they haven't been. They managed just 178 markers through the regular season, sitting 29th in the category above just the Kings and Red Wings, and averaged a sixth-worst 2.58 goals per game. That they still managed to finish fourth in the Western Conference for a bye into Round 1 is a huge credit to their elite defence, led by the core four of Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg, Esa Lindell and Jamie Oleksiak, and strong goaltending from the tandem of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin.
That regular-season tandem, though, is now down to one -- and it's Khudobin who has been in net for 14 of the Stars' 16 games while Bishop has been on and off of the team's unfit-to-play list. Khudobin has come up big in several situations and is no doubt a big part of this team's success, but as his stats indicate (2.94 goals-against average, .909 save percentage, no shutouts) he's keeping the Stars afloat, not steering the ship.
Unable to lean quite as heavily on goaltending, the Stars have been forced to play a much more offensive-minded game. Gone are the days when they can win 1-0 and 2-1 games -- all four of their victories over Colorado required five goals from the Stars, placing them second among all playoff teams in total goals scored (53, behind the club they just eliminated) and fourth in goals per game (3.31) through 16 contests.
How Vegas got here
Coming out of the round robin as the top seed and making quick work of the should've-been-lottery-bound Chicago Blackhawks, the Goliath Golden Knights had not truly been tested until about midway through their second-round series against Vancouver. That's when the Canucks taught them two very important lessons they must carry with them if they want to keep this show on the road against Dallas.
The first is to never underestimate an opponent, no matter where they sat in the regular-season standings or how many games you're up in the series. Up 3-1 and outscoring Vancouver by a combined 15-8, Vegas ran into trouble in Game 5 — and his name was Thatcher Demko. Suddenly, their elite two-way play was truly put to the test by Vancouver, their high-volume shooting falling short compared to the Canucks' quality chances. Demko almost single-handedly sent the Golden Knights packing, letting just one goal past him in Game 5, shutting them out in Game 6, and then almost repeating that feat in the seventh.
That's where the second lesson comes in: if at first you don't succeed, try, try, again. And then again. And then keep trying. Seriously, just keep shooting the puck, it's your only option. The Golden Knights' high shot volume was never more evident than when none of those shots were actually going in. Despite outshooting the Canucks 125-53 in Games 5, 6 and 7 combined, they had just two goals to show for their barrage of pucks, with both goals coming off the stick of defenceman and leading scorer Shea Theodore -- with 98 Golden Knights shots separating them.
Theodore's late-game heroics are what ultimately got the Golden Knights over their toughest opponent yet -- and what kept head coach Pete DeBoer's impressive Game 7 streak alive.
Stars X-Factor: Miro Heiskanen. Kiviranta was the Game 7 hero, but it's fellow Finn Heiskanen who's been the biggest driving force for Dallas this post-season. If you didn't know much about the smooth-skating defenceman before this summer, you do now. The 21-year-old registered at least one point in all seven games of Round 2 and rides an eight-game point streak into the conference final. He leads all Stars in assists (16), points (21) and ice time (25:54 per game), and sits second league-wide in the post-season scoring race.
Golden Knights X-Factor: Shea Theodore. When we talk about the Golden Knights, we talk about Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty and Reilly Smith and their potent offence filled with elite two-way players. We also talk about Theodore, and he's about to become an even bigger talking point as Vegas moves on. Just like Dallas, Vegas's leading scorer is their best young defenceman. Not only is Theodore a beast on the blue line, he's also a constant scoring threat every time he's on the ice. His shot from the point is lethal, and no Golden Knight has put more shots on opponents' nets this post-season than the 25-year-old (64). That persistence has paid off. Stumped by Demko during their series against the Canucks, it was Theodore -- and only Theodore -- who managed to score on the phenom.
Dallas will win if: They can keep their offensive firepower going.
...Goals? For wins? Groundbreaking.
As much as you can praise their newly-discovered high-scoring ways, there's a troubling counter-stat: 56 -- that's the number of goals they've allowed this post-season, which is tops in the league by a mile and 21 more than Vegas has allowed. Sure, Khudobin just faced the league's most potent offence and is still standing, but he's about to face another barrage of shots from the Golden Knights, whose average of 37.1 shots fired per game is just above Colorado's mark. It's hard to see any low-scoring victories in the Stars' future, which means they'll have to keep this offence firing if they're to keep pace with the Golden Knights.
Vegas will win if: Robin Lehner keeps being Robin Lehner. Despite a little controversy in the crease involving a certain photoshopped sword you've undoubtedly seen by now, goaltending has been a real source of strength for Vegas. All three of Lehner's victories over Vancouver were shutouts (Marc-Andre Fleury backstopped them to victory in Game 4) and keeping that crease on lock down will ultimately be the difference-maker if they're to hoist the Cup at the end of this.