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.

Scroll Down For:

    Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

    Getty Images
    1 Comment

    ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

    The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

    The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

    Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

    The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

    Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

    tampa bay lightning
    Scott Audette/Getty Images
    2 Comments

    TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

    The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

    “This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

    Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

    Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

    Rasmus Sandin
    Julian Avram/Getty Images
    2 Comments

    TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

    The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

    “Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

    The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

    Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

    Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

    marc-andre fleury
    David Berding/Getty Images
    2 Comments

    ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

    The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

    “They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

    Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

    Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

    Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

    “I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

    The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

    There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

    “We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

    The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

    COMINGS AND GOINGS

    The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

    MORE POWER

    The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

    “It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

    BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

    Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

    “Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

    UP FRONT

    With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

    ON THE SLATE

    This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.