From a group of 12 Western Conference teams to enter the Edmonton bubble, we are now all the way down to two. And there can be only one to represent the conference in the Stanley Cup Final.
The 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs have reached the final four, and in the West, that has yielded a matchup between the No. 1-seeded Vegas Golden Knights against the No. 3 Dallas Stars. For the Stars, a return to the final would be 20 years in the making, while for the Knights, it’s been … two years in the making. The two teams split the regular-season series 1-1, and Vegas won their round-robin postseason matchup 5-3.
Here’s our full breakdown of the matchup in six areas, along with a prediction on how this thing is gonna turn out.
What we learned in the conference semifinal round: That the Stars can put the puck in the net. In three of their four wins against the Calgary Flames in the quarterfinals, the Stars scored five or more goals. Against the Colorado Avalanche, whom they defeated in seven games, the Stars scored five goals in each of their wins, and another eight goals combined in their three losses. Given some of the tweaks they’ve made since the pause, there’s enough evidence here to call this a trend for what had been one of the NHL’s quietest offenses. They were 26th in the regular season in goals per game (2.58); they’re fourth in the postseason (3.31).
The Golden Knights were pushed to seven games by the Vancouver Canucks, thanks to the superhuman goaltending of Thatcher Demko in the last three games of the series. But in the end, the Knights were still the Knights. holding a lopsided advantage in shot attempts in each game, putting a damper on the Canucks’ explosive offensive — limiting them to two goals in the last two games of the series — and showing off their unparalleled depth in the process.
First line: The Stars’ top line of Tyler Seguin centering Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn has been positive on the possession side and had an expected goals rate of 3.12 per 60 minutes and 2.71 expected goals against. Benn has been good, with five goals and eight assists. Radulov has seven goals, including two in Game 7. Seguin has been the most inconsistent of the three, with just two goals and five assists in 15 postseason games.
It’s hard to identify which Vegas line is the first line. They have two candidates: Whomever Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault are playing with, and whomever Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone are playing with. For argument’s sake, we’ll go with the line that was reunited in Game 7: Smith, Marchessault and William Karlsson. They’ve earned 70% of the on-ice shot attempts and have an expected goals rate of 3.66 per 60 minutes and 1.76 goals against. The Stars’ top line can be great. The Knights’ top lines are consistently great. Advantage: Golden Knights.
Forward depth: Stone and Pacioretty have seen time with Karlsson and Chandler Stephenson this postseason. Game 7 saw the Knights put veteran Paul Stastny alongside Nicolas Roy and Alex Tuch, their leading playoff goal-scorer, with eight tallies. Though Ryan Reaves will miss Game 1 due to suspension for an illegal check to the head, he makes up a bruising and effective fourth line with William Carrier and Tomas Nosek.
For the Stars, their leading goal-scorers — rookie Denis Gurianov and veteran Joe Pavelski, each with eight goals — are on the same line. They usually skate with Mattias Janmark. Roope Hintz, Jason Dickinson and Corey Perry have held their own defensively even if they haven’t generated much at 5-on-5. Perry (19 PIM) has been doing some Corey Perry things in the playoffs. Blake Comeau and Radek Faksa had skated with Andrew Cogliano for most of the postseason. Then Cogliano was unfit to play in Game 7 … and rookie Joel Kiviranta, his replacement, tallied a hat trick that included the game winner in overtime. Coach Rick Bowness has already said that Kiviranta is in for Game 1. Advantage: Golden Knights.
Joel Kiviranta caps off his hat trick by scoring an overtime goal to send the Stars to the Western Conference finals with a 5-4 win over the Avalanche in Game 7.
Defense: One of the most significant tactical changes for the Stars was the decision to activate their defensemen more offensively. The result: Miro Heiskanen is their leading scorer with 21 points, 13 of them coming at even strength; and John Klingberg has 12 points, nine of them at evens. Both are paired with dependable defensive defensemen in Jamie Oleksiak and Esa Lindell, respectively. Andrej Sekera has been a mainstay on their third pairing, with Taylor Fedun and Joel Hanley in the mix.
The Knights also have a defenseman as their leading scorer in Shea Theodore, with 16 points in 15 games. While coach Peter DeBoer has moved around his forward lines on occasion, his defensive pairings have been consistent: Theodore with Alec Martinez, Brayden McNabb with Nate Schmidt, and impressive rookie Zach Whitecloud with Nick Holden. Advantage: Stars.
Goaltending: The Knights have had to deal with the external scrutiny of their goaltending situation — it’s not every postseason that an agent posts an image of his client being stabbed in the back with the coach’s sword, as did Allan Walsh, the agent for Marc-Andre Fleury. But DeBoer has cemented Robin Lehner as his starter with 12 appearances. Lehner has responded with a .918 save percentage and a 1.99 goals-against average. After a horrible round-robin appearance, Fleury bounced back with a .931 save percentage in games against Chicago and Vancouver. But after DeBoer ignored the social media stabbing and Lehner pitched a shutout in Game 7, the crease belongs to the former Blackhawk.
Anton Khudobin was thrust into the starter’s gig because Ben Bishop has been unfit to play for most of the postseason. (Bishop tried to play in Game 5 of the Colorado series but was pulled in the first period after giving up four goals on 19 shots.) Khudobin has a .909 save percentage and a 2.94 goals-against average, but has come through when needed. Advantage: Golden Knights.
Coaching: Bowness is one of the best stories of the postseason. The 65-year-old coach, the oldest in the NHL, took over on an emergency interim basis in December 2019 after the team fired coach Jim Montgomery for personal conduct violations. This is only his second postseason appearance and the second time he has reached the conference finals; the last time was with the 1991-92 Boston Bruins.
DeBoer is coaching his third conference finalist, having reached the Stanley Cup Final with the New Jersey Devils (2012) and San Jose Sharks (2016) in his first seasons with both teams. He took over the Knights in January after being fired by San Jose earlier in the season. He makes tough, sometimes unpopular decisions … but he gets results. He’s the first coach in NHL history to be 5-0 in Game 7s. Advantage: Golden Knights.
Special teams: The Knights convert on 20.5% of their power plays and are 87.8% on the penalty kill. The Stars convert 22.6% of their power plays and are 82.3% on the kill. Dallas averages more power plays per game (3.31) than Vegas (2.93). The Stars are also short-handed more per game (3.88 times) than the Knights (3.27). Advantage: Golden Knights.
Prediction: Golden Knights in six. The Stars’ offense is one of the biggest surprises of the postseason, but the Knights aren’t the injury-devastated Avalanche, who were down to their third-string goalie. Vegas is one of the most complete teams in the postseason, playing a 200-foot game and proving they have the ability to beat you in a variety of ways. They’ll advance to the second Stanley Cup Final in their three-year existence with a win over Dallas, who will be a tough out.