EDMONTON — They check every box, these Dallas Stars, as a team with a very real chance to become Stanley Cup champions — no matter what you thought about them when this whole thing began a couple of months ago.
Goaltending? Anton Khudobin is likely the leading Conn Smythe candidate right now.
A deep lineup? Man, it’s hard to tell one Stars line from the next, they all come at you so hard. And on Saturday, Dallas got two goals from defencemen in its 4-1 win, and neither scorer was named Klingberg or Heiskanen.
And now we are beginning to see the trait that every Cup winner since the beginning of time has exhibited, as a “new hero every night” begins to emerge.
Dallas took a 1-0 lead in this Stanley Cup Final Saturday on a game-winner from Jamie Oleksiak, a game-opener by Joel Hanley, and a dagger late in the second period by the slick Finn Joel Kiviranta, his fifth goal in nine playoff games.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Kiviranta said. “Sometimes it goes like, whenever you shoot the puck it’s going in. Like right now.”
Oleksiak also has five playoff goals. This from a stay-at-home defenceman nicknamed “Big Rig” who only once before had a five-goal regular season in the NHL.
And Hanley? Not only had he never scored an NHL playoff goal before. He had never scored an NHL goal — period — before Saturday.
He took a pass from Roope Hintz and whistled the game-opener past Andrei Vasilevskiy from the high slot, an out-of-body experience for the undrafted journeyman, a 29-year-old with just 46 career NHL games who will never forget his first NHL goal inside the playoff bubble.
“No. No, definitely not,” he said. “It’s something you think about when you’re young, and it’s just cool to contribute with a goal like that. It’s pretty cool to be in the Final too. Ya. Pretty cool.”
Really cool for a Stars team that dominated the opening 40 minutes of Game 1. Tampa Bay wasn’t ready to meet the Stars’ intensity level, coming off its conference final victory just two days before. The Lightning outshot Dallas 22-2 in the third period, but the Stars just nursed their two-goal lead before Jason Dickinson fired one into an empty net to close the deal.
The Lightning will need to bring much, much more to the table and we expect them to do so, starting on Monday in Game 2.
“For 40 minutes, that’s how we want to play the game,” Stars head coach Rick Bowness said. “We limited shots, we limited the chances against, our D were involved… That’s how we want to play.”
It’s all coming together right now for the Stars. Even on a night when the top line produced but a single assist, they still got four goals from a bunch of guys named Joel, and the famous swimmer’s brother.
“Well, that’s how you win,” shrugged Bowness. “You rely on your top-end guys to get you some chances, and you rely on guys who step up every now and then and score some huge goals. Joel Hanley, I couldn’t be happier for him.
“That’s what you need in the playoffs. You can’t just focus on your top-end guys. You need contributions from everybody. Kivi has been doing that for us. Big Rig? Couldn’t be happier for Jamie. He got the winning goal for us tonight.”
Kiviranta set up the first goal with a huge hit in the corner, then scored the third goal on a one-on-four solo rush. He has become a huge revelation this fall, and not just to fans and media.
“That's how he plays. He’s fearless,” Bowness said. “As inexperienced as he is in terms of playing in our league (just 11 regular-season games), he’s one of our best forwards at making plays off the boards with the puck. He has a lot of poise and confidence with the puck, and he’s very reliable defensively.
“If I were any smarter as a coach I would have had him playing a lot earlier than this.”