Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020 | 9 a.m.
Let’s play a game, just to emphasize the amount of young defensive talent that will be on the ice in the Western Conference Final.
Player A: He leads all defensemen with six goals this postseason, netted the game-winner in Game 7 on Friday and leads all defensemen in on-ice expected-goal rate at 5-on-5. He’s 25-years-old and also leads his team in points.
Player B: He leads all defensemen with 21 points and all skaters with 16 this postseason, is riding an eight-game point streak and drew arguably the league’s best player every night in a defensive assignments last round. He’s 21 and also leads his team in points.
Player A is Vegas’ Shea Theodore. Player B is Dallas’ Miro Heiskanen.
It’s less about which one you’d take and more about the kind of show we all be treated to when the Golden Knights and Stars meet with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line. Game 1 of the best-of-seven game series is 5 p.m on NBC.
Theodore and Heiskanen are two players who have for years been adored by the analytics community that has been heralding their imminent breakouts. That breakout is here, as both have been their teams’ best player in reaching this point of the postseason.
You would be hard-pressed to find something negative a player says about a teammate. The Golden Knights have raved about Theodore all playoffs, as to be expected. What’s telling is how opponents talk aboutnthem.
Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said he and assistant coach Steve Spott have talked with Stars forward Joe Pavelski plenty in the Edmonton bubble. Pavelski was the captain of the San Jose Sharks last season when DeBoer and Spott were on staff and a few of those conversation have been about Heiskanen.
“What Joe says about him, both as a player and a person, carries the most weight. He says this kid’s a superstar,” DeBoer said. “You can see that on the ice and a lot like Shea Theodore on our end, you can see him growing and getting better every time he steps out there.”
Dallas coach Rick Bowness was equally complimentary of Theodore, particularly in the way he helps lead the Golden Knights' rush.
"When you're on the attack you've got to have four men going and you've got to keep going north in a hurry, so Theodore is a perfect example of that. He's been outstanding," Bowness said. "Highly skilled, highly mobile, very confident and playing great hockey for them."
Just like Theodore, Heiskanen doesn't have to do it alone either. Nate Schmidt has been strong for the Golden Knights for three years, most often drawing the top defensive assignments that allow Theodore to excel elsewhere. Theodore also has Alec Martinez as a defensive partner, and the two have gelled almost immediately since the February trade that brought Martinez to Vegas.
In Dallas it's a similar situation. John Klingberg plays the Schmidt role providing complementary offense on a different pairing, while Jamie Oleksiak is Heiskanen's Martinez, standing tall defensively while Heiskanen skates around the ice.
Either Theodore or Heiskanen could fill in on the other teams' power play and play a similar role. Both quarterback from the point when they are on the ice, which they are for most of the time. This postseason, Heiskanen is second among NHL defensemen with eight points on the power play, and Theodore is tied for third with six. Both have two power-play goals to tie for the league lead.
This series is hockey dessert for fans of skilled defensemen, and so far both teams have run their offense — on the rush, on the power play and otherwise — through their two gifted blue liners. There's plenty of other skaters on the ice, but one of Theodore or Heiskanen will be playing in the Stanley Cup Final. How they play against each other might determine which one that is.
Series: Tied 0-0
TV: NBC Channel 3
Radio: Fox Sports 1340 AM and 98.9 FM
Betting line: Golden Knights minus-165, Stars plus-140; over/under: 6 (minus-105, minus-115)
Golden Knights (11-4, Western Conference No. 1 seed)
Previous round: Defeated Vancouver in second round, 4-3
Coach: Peter DeBoer (first season)
Points leaders: Shea Theodore (16)
Goals leaders: Alex Tuch (8)
Assists leaders: Shea Theodore (10)
Expected goalie: Robin Lehner (1.99 GAA, .918 save percentage)
Stars (9-7, Western Conference No. 3 seed)
Previous round: Defeated Colorado in second round, 4-3
Coach: Rick Bowness (first season)
Points leaders: Miro Heiskanen (21)
Goals leader: Denis Gurianov, Joe Pavelski (8)
Assists leaders: Miro Heiskanen (16)
Expected goalie: Anton Khudobin (2.94 GAA, .909 save percentage)
Golden Knights projected lineup
Max Pacioretty—William Karlsson—Mark Stone
Jonathan Marchessault—Paul Stastny—Reilly Smith
Nick Cousins—Nicolas Roy—Alex Tuch
William Carrier—Chandler Stephenson—Tomas Nosek
Brayden McNabb—Nate Schmidt
Alec Martinez—Shea Theodore
Nick Holden—Zach Whitecloud
Robin Lehner, Marc-Andre Fleury