Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020 | 7:08 p.m.
Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer joked after Friday’s Game 7 victory that he needed a drink before focusing on the next playoff challenge, the Dallas Stars.
That’s just what the Golden Knights spent Saturday doing, getting ready for their Western Conference Final opponent.
The Stars are less familiar to the Golden Knights than the Canucks playing in the Central Division, but have some fun history as Vegas’ first-ever opponent in the inaugural season. The two will meet for the first time in the playoffs at 5 p.m. Sunday.
Here are five things to know about the Dallas Stars.
Not the Stars we thought we knew
If you’ve watched the Stars over the past few seasons, you know they’re a defensive-first team with strong goaltending that is happy to win games 2-1. They allowed the fewest goals in the Western Conference this season, but their offense was nothing to write home about, with the second-fewest goals scored in the conference.
That’s not the case this postseason. The Stars average 3.31 goals per game, fourth among all 24 teams invited to the season’s restart. They scored 28 goals in their seven-game series against the Avalanche and only once failed to score three goals.
The defense has also disappeared. Dallas has averaged 3.50 goals against per game, which is second-worst among the 16 teams that advanced to the first round.
Suddenly the suffocating Stars are playing a wide-open brand of hockey that is tough to prepare for. Unpredictability is the bane of any game plan, so keep an eye on how the Stars both defend and attack the Golden Knights this series.
That also goes for the forwards
Have you ever heard of Joel Kiviranta before Friday? He had played 11 games in the regular season and just two in the postseason before being thrust into duty for Game 7. All he did was score a hat trick, including the overtime game-winner to lead Dallas past Colorado.
Kiviranta is an extreme case, but an example of needing everyone on the roster chipping in to win playoff games. The Stars are known for Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, and while Benn (13 points in 16 games) and Joe Pavelski (eight goals) has been good this postseason, Seguin has struggled with just seven points in 15 games.
Instead it’s been players like Denis Gurianov, who has continued a breakout season by tying with Pavelski for the team lead with eight goals these playoffs, and Mattias Janmark, who leads the team in on-ice expected-goals percentage.
Two young stars on defense
The Dallas blue line is a strength with Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg forming a potent one-two offensive-minded punch matched by few teams in the league. Vegas, though, is one of them with Shea Theodore and Nate Schmidt playing at high levels during playoffs.
Heiskanen, in just his second NHL season, has 13 points in his last eight games and at least one point in all but three games this postseason. Klingberg has 12 points in the postseason
Theodore, the Golden Knights’ defensive leader, has a team-best 16 points this postseason. Schmidt has eight.
Vegas is familiar with playing against a hot defenseman. In the series win against the Canucks, Quinn Hughes had a goal and an assist in Game 6 to establish a NHL rookie record with 16 points through two playoff rounds.
Goaltending duo has been a solo act
Ben Bishop, the Vezina Trophy runner-up last season who didn’t drop off much in 2019-20, is one of the best goalies in the league. The problem is that he’s been neither healthy nor productive this postseason, with just three appearances and a gaudy 5.43 goals-against average.
Bishop returned from his “unfit to play” designation for the second game of a back-to-back in Game 5 against Colorado, only to allow four goals on 19 shots and depart after 13:43 of game time.
He is again unfit to play.
Luckily for the Stars, they were among the first teams to deploy the new-wave of goaltending tandems, and Anton Khudobin has been capable enough, with a .909 save percentage in 14 games. The Golden Knights have had to face off against plenty of good goalies so far and whether it’s Khudobin for four-to-seven games or Bishop, that doesn’t end with the Stars.
Dallas has played the Golden Knights better than anyone
Vegas beat Dallas 5-3 early in the NHL restart during a round-robin meeting, but the Stars controlled a lot of that game, and the Golden Knights needed a big comeback to win.
The Golden Knights are a different team now than when these two met a month ago. The Golden Knights steamrolled over the Blackhawks and Canucks from a puck-possession standpoint, even if it took seven games to dispatch Vancouver. While the Golden Knights are 16-1-2 all-time against the Blackhawks and Canucks in the regular season (the two teams against which Vegas has fared best), that level of ownership isn’t there against Dallas isn’t there.
Yes, they are 6-2 all-time, but with just a plus-five win differential, and a 1-1 record this year where the win was in overtime.
Vegas has had a relatively easy path to the Stanley Cup Final on paper so far, but that ends with Dallas. The Golden Knights are still favored, but the Stars are their best opponent yet, by a pretty significant margin.