EDMONTON — There are no pretenders left. No Cinderella stories that came out of nowhere.
Not after a Qualifying Round and two rounds of the National Hockey League playoffs.
And they all know it.
“There’s a bit of a feeling,” began Vegas defenceman Alec Martinez, who won Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and ’14. “Good teams figure out ways to win series, win games, and not necessarily when they’re playing their best. Good teams have clearly defined roles and guys know what they are, and guys play to those roles.
“Guys who know what they do well and they go out and perform well. So far this playoffs we’ve done that. But we’re only halfway there.”
The backdrop, as the Western Conference Final opens tonight between sunbelt stalwarts Vegas and Dallas, has both clubs coming in on one day of rest after emotional Game 7 victories on Friday. Dallas required overtime to defeat Colorado 5-4, while the Vancouver Canucks stretched Vegas to the limit in a game that would end in a 3-0 shutout — with two empty net goals by the Golden Knights.
In the moment, those Game 7s are everything. Today, only 48 hours later, they fade back into being just another step in the journey, with a new opponent and a fresh series about to begin.
“Our biggest challenge is to come to the rink with renewed emotion, with renewed passion,” said Stars head coach Rick Bowness. “If you don’t have that, the X’s and O’s go out the window. They don’t mean anything.
“Look,” he continued, “we didn’t come here to get by the second round. We came here to win the Stanley Cup. Was it a big hurdle to get by the second round? Sure. But the message is: put it behind you. You have to continue to take big steps, and it starts tonight.
“The emotion and passion, it has to come from within each individual. Now there’s another hurdle. We want to get by Vegas. We’ve addressed it, and now we’ll drop the puck and see where we are.”
Truly, every playoff run is like a four-book series. Some are shorter, others longer. But they all read a little bit differently from each other, as a successful team moves from round to round.
“Every playoffs has its own story — every series, every game. You’re not going to go through this 16-0,” Martinez said. “I look back on some of the experiences, having played Game 7s, there were certain situations that came up where you really had to fight through the adversity. It’s not going to be easy, and it wouldn’t be worth it if it were easy.”
This particular playoff is unique, with more back-to-back games and a series schedule that was announced only on the day of Game 1. It’s been so hockey-focused, without the opportunity to go home on an off day and get away from the game.
“Since we’ve been here in the bubble, games have (been) won fast and furious,” said Dallas veteran Joe Pavelski. “We kinda make it up as we go with the schedule. No one is travelling, so they can just keep throwing these games at us.”
Which is OK with him.
“You get two days off here in the bubble, you start looking at yourself a little funny.”
With a day to reflect, Max Pacioretty was asked whether his heavily favoured Golden Knights felt more relief or joy in finally dispatching the pesky Canucks, a question he pushed back on. What he didn’t like was the concept of the Canucks being an easy opponent that Vegas should have beaten easily.
“You can’t look at any team and say it’s a relief we were able to win,” the veteran winger said. “It takes four games to close a series, and there’s no shame in it taking four games or seven games. We got tested, that was our adversity. (Vancouver had) a goaltender in (Thatcher Demko) who came in and it seemed like it would be impossible to put one by him. That was a test for us … and a big reason why we feel good right now is that we were able to overcome that.
“It wasn’t a relief (beating Vancouver). It was more excitement and pride.”
Vegas coach Peter DeBoer, like Bowness, can’t be entirely sure what he’ll get from his charges in Game 1 after that emotional Vancouver series.
“No, and it’s good question because the emotion of a Game 7 does drain you,” he said. “That high, it’s tough to bounce back right away from an emotional win or loss. That’s just a fact.
“There are only so many things coaches can do lineup-wise to battle that. The good thing is, we’re both in the same boat.”
He added that forwards Andrew Cogliano and Mattias Janmark are “game time decisions,” while “it’s a pretty good bet” that Joel Kiviranta’s Game 7 hat trick will earn him a spot in the Stars lineup tonight.