Golden Knights vs. Stars: 2020 Western Conference Final preview

When the Stars and Golden Knights built 3-1 series leads in the Second Round, they probably expected to get to the 2020 Western Conference Final much sooner. Instead, each team needed to grit out Game 7 nail-biters to beat the Avalanche and Canucks respectively.

Each Game 7 told some of the story of the Stars’ and Golden Knights’ journeys to the 2020 Western Conference Final.

The Stars closed off a high-scoring, wild series with a high-scoring, wild Game 7 versus the Avs. Leads kept changing hands until little-known Dallas forward Joel Kiviranta completed his hat trick in overtime.

Meanwhile, the Golden Knights were forced to grind away against the suddenly-turtling Canucks. After failing to solve Thatcher Demko in Games 5 and 6, they finally did just enough to advance.

So, will the Stars carry over unexpected scoring ways, or try to present a more polished version of the Canucks’ late-series gameplan against the Golden Knights? Will Vegas echo Colorado in forcing a high-octane style on Dallas anyway, only with more success? We’ll find out as the Golden Knights battle the Stars in the 2020 Western Conference Final.

No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. No. 3 Dallas Stars

Game 1: Sunday, Sept. 6, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 2: Tuesday, Sept. 8, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 3:
Thursday, Sept. 10, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 4:
Saturday, Sept. 12, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 5:
Monday, Sept. 14, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Game 6:
Wednesday, Sept. 16, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Game 7:
Friday, Sept. 18, 9 p.m. ET – NBCSN

*if necessary

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

OFFENSE

During the regular season, Max Pacioretty (66 points) and Mark Stone (63) both finished in the top 30 in point scoring. The Stars, meanwhile, saw one player finish in the top 70: Tyler Seguin (50 points, tied for 68th).

And while the Golden Knights didn’t always convert on their league-leading puck possession, they still average more goals per game (3.15, 13th-best) than the Stars (2.58, 26th-ranked). In “elevator pitch” terms, it makes sense, too: the Golden Knights feature “two first lines,” while the Stars’ lone first one has struggled to the point of CEO profanity during recent seasons.

The gap might have closed a bit during the playoffs, though. Consider that Vegas’ goals per game in the postseason (3.29) was only marginally better than that of Dallas (3.20). Switching to the elevator pitch again: the Stars showed they could hang in a run-and-gun series with the run-and-gun Avalanche.

Maybe the biggest factor for the Stars is that they got this far with Tyler Seguin struggling? Seguin failed to score in the last four games of the Avs series, and it’s felt like Seguin’s been “due” for ages. Maybe his bad 2020 postseason and career playoff percentages (both in the five-percent range) point to a lack of [insert slight about his grit/stick-to-it-iveness]. Or maybe Seguin might actually break through in a more wide-open series?

Either way, the Stars have some potential to score more than they have before, and the series against Colorado put that on display.

Advantage: GOLDEN KNIGHTS.

DEFENSE

You may not know this, but Shea Theodore is kind of a big deal.

For some time, the Golden Knights’ defense has been underrated, overall. Even beyond “the best defense is a good offense” nature of simply hogging the puck, this is a pretty mobile group that can move the puck. You don’t dominate puck possession for two seasons in a row by only being explosive offensively.

But defense has often been the Stars’ “thing,” and Dallas is one of the few NHL teams who possess two blue-chippers in Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg.

This is really close, especially since the Golden Knights hang in there — if not surpass — the Stars at limiting high-danger chances and scoring chances against, yet …

Advantage: STARS, slightly.

GOALTENDING

Quite a while ago, goaltending would have been a no-brainer advantage for the Stars. Then the Golden Knights traded for Robin Lehner, followed by Ben Bishop getting injured. Now it’s a tougher call.

Granted, Anton Khudobin ranks among those backups who could probably start elsewhere. During the regular season, Khudobin sported a noticeably superior save percentage (.930) to Ben Bishop (.920), and he’s played at a comparably high level as Bishop since joining the Stars. While Khudobin looked shakier as the Avs – Stars series went on, it’s fair to ask: how many goalies would have thrived in such a hectic series?

But, still, it would have been more comforting if the Stars had both Khudobin and Bishop to lean on. It really doesn’t seem that way, and with Jake Oettinger largely unproven, the position holds some unpredictably.

Lehner, meanwhile, has been playing at an incredibly high level for two seasons now, while Marc-Andre Fleury is a seasoned goalie. Of course, MAF’s viability will prompt people to call for Lehner’s head anytime he wavers, so that’s not great, either.

Advantage: GOLDEN KNIGHTS, at least if Bishop isn’t healthy.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Stars share the playoffs power-play goal lead (15) with the Avalanche team they eliminated, and Dallas connected on an impressive 28.3 percent of their chances during the postseason. That gives the Stars the postseason edge, as the Golden Knights have only scored nine PPG on a 20.5-percent success rate. That said, the Golden Knights killed penalties very well (87.8 percent) while the Stars have been solid (82.3).

During the regular season, the Stars matched the Golden Knights with 42 PPG despite playing in two fewer games (interestingly, Vegas boasted a better power-play percentage, though, at 22 to 21.1 for Dallas). While the Golden Knights struggled to kill penalties (76.6 percent), the Stars were stingier (79.7). It’s fair to wonder if Robin Lehner and generally tighter playoff play translates to a wash on the PK.

Overall, a lot of the signs point to Dallas, as the Stars won Game 7 in part thanks to Alexander Radulov‘s pair of PPG. That said, it will be interesting to see if the Golden Knights regain their PK aggressiveness. They scored nine shorthanded goals during the regular season, while the Stars generated five.

Advantage: STARS.

PREDICTION

Golden Knights in 6.

Heading into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it seemed like the Stars were a one-trick pony. As it turns out, the Stars proved they can win a high-scoring series when they beat the Avalanche.

That said, the Golden Knights boast a roster that could hang with the Avs, and Vegas also has two healthy goalies. With that in mind, the Stars might want to slow things down to their more typical rhythm. If so, Vegas will probably be OK with that, as the Golden Knights can dance to many different tempos.

Expect two tired teams to start the 2020 Western Conference Final. As the series goes along, it could get really interesting, though.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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