Two things make the Stanley Cup playoffs compelling to even the spectator with minimal hockey knowledge. The first is the storyline being written by both teams. In this year’s Western Conference Finals, each team was coming off equal days of rest after managing to salvage their seasons from 3-1 series lead collapses in the previous round. The other thing is not only the winners each night, but the unpredictability of how each team has won.
In the previous series the Dallas Stars surrendered a total of 29 goals. Surrendering goals was not even in the Stars vocabulary in the five game series as they only allowed a total of seven goals. Scoring on their very first shot of the series by John Klingberg, it looked like the Stars were going to be continuing their offensive scoring spree that had gotten them to this round. While they still looked strong offensively, it was the goalie Anton Khudobin who would be the name that spectators would rave about the next day and throughout the series. Khudobin, who has come in as a replacement for the injured Ben Bishop in the playoffs, had some inconsistencies in the previous round against the Colorado Avalanche. In game one he looked nearly flawless. With a stellar defensive performance, Klingberg’s lone goal was enough for Dallas to emerge victorious 1-0 in game one.
The Stars were struggling to find the back of the net in game two, and this time Vegas made Khudobin work harder. In the second period Vegas forward Max Pacioretty found center Paul Stastny down low for Vegas’ first goal of the series. Two more goals would follow in the period resulting in Khudobin being pulled at the second intermission as the Golden Knights were able to return the favor by shutting out the Stars 3-0.
One question that has lurked throughout the playoffs is “when does the momentum truly start to swing in a team’s direction?” Game three does not seem like a totally implausible answer, as being up in a series 2-1 is a much easier hill to climb then being down 1-2.
Both teams certainly looked especially hungry for that 2-1 series lead. Despite the Golden Knights outshooting the Stars 18-4 in the third period, Stars captain Jamie Benn was able to exploit an opportunity in the neutral zone and put one in under the legs of Vegas goalie Robin Lehner to give the Stars a 2-1 lead in the third. The Golden Knights clearly did not want to go down, and the relentless pursuit in the Stars zone by Vegas’ Alex Tuch paid off as he tied the game with 7:14 left in regulation to send it to a pressure packed overtime, something that has separated the good from the great teams throughout the playoffs. The Stars immediately got a breakaway in overtime as postseason veteran Joe Pavelski found a wide open Alexander Radulov, who scored off the far post from the right faceoff circle to give the Stars that 2-1 series lead which both teams were craving.
The series momentum certainly looked like it was swinging in the Stars’ direction, at least in the direction of Khudobin who came up big in game four where he again surrendered just one goal, saving 32 shots. Who knows what the fate of the series would look like without Khudobin’s performance. Despite Vegas looking like more of the aggressors by outshooting the Stars 33-20 in game four, the Stars were the ones in command of the series.
“He’s a battler, he’s a competitive guy and he’s keeping us in every game,” Stars head coach Rick Bowness said about Khudobin according to ESPN.
Vegas’ theme throughout the series was not taking advantage of golden scoring opportunities. This came to full circle in game four when the Golden Knights could not get one past Khudobin on a two man advantage with 6:44 left. After Pavelski was called for tripping, Vegas had a 5-on-3 power play opportunity. The stingy defense of the Stars was able to kill it off as the team emerged victorious 2-1, needing just one more win to advance to their first Stanley Cup Finals since 2000.
While it was looking clear that the momentum of the series had shifted in the Stars direction, their opposition was anything but out of it going into game five down 3-1 in the series. The Stars had nearly given up a 3-1 lead in the previous round, and with the way the series had been going, no game truly had a winner crowned. Vegas showed just why on a Chandler Stephenson backhand to give the Golden Knights an early 1-0 lead. Again Khudobin made stop after stop slowing down Vegas opportunities. The only difference, the Stars were not capitalizing on any of their opportunities. That is, until the third period, when Captain Benn scored off a rebound followed by a relentless pursuit to the crease by John Kiviranta with 3:47 left, who came up big in the deciding game of the previous series.
Another low scoring affair, the game and perhaps the series would be decided that night by sudden death overtime. While the Golden Knights struggled throughout the series to make things happen when it mattered most, they also made a costly mistake when it mattered most. Golden Knights defenseman Zach Whitecloud was sent to the penalty box on a delay of game penalty. This gave the Stars a one man advantage, to which they separated themselves from the Golden Knights by scoring on the opportunity, thanks to a series winning one-timer by Denis Gurianov. Gurianov’s one-timer knocked out the top-seeded team in the west and propelled the Stars to the Stanley Cup Finals. While there may have been no crowd to celebrate with the Stars, there was no shortage of bedlam among the team.
“I’ve been in a couple rinks where we’ve clinched to go to the finals, and it erupts,” said Bowness according to ESPN. “Tonight you’re so excited, you don’t even notice. .. All you’re thinking about is your team.”
There has also been no shortage of unpredictability and excitement in the Stars playoff run. After a high scoring affair in the previous series against the Colorado Avalanche, the Stars won this series on Khudobin and the defense. What kind of performances will we see from the Stars in the Stanley Cup finals? That question still remains to be answered but one question just recently answered, is that the Dallas Stars will face off against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Lightning will likely be the biggest challenge yet but the Stars will be coming off of more days of rest. If the Stars can find a way to take advantage of little mistakes, and play lockdown defense their is a huge possibility that we could see the Stars lifting their second Stanley Cup in franchise history.
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