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Western Conference Finals Preview: Golden Knights vs. Stars

The Western Conference Finals is a tale of two teams. These particular two teams each held a commanding three games to one lead in the second round.  So, it turns out that the same two teams then lost two straight games before winning their respective Game 7’s.

Okay, so I know every playoff series is a story of two teams but this feels different. Sure, the number one seed, the Vegas Golden Knights, met expectations by punching their ticket for the Western Conference Finals. The Dallas Stars surprised many in their postseason run especially with their thrilling overtime Game 7 win over Colorado.

Despite the fact that Dallas needed overtime Game 7 heroics, this series pits the one and three seed. So, this series is tighter than some might think.  Now, let’s take a closer look at this match-up.

Coaches Corner

Vegas coach Peter DeBoer is coaching in his second straight Western Conference Finals.  Last season, coaching the San Jose Sharks, DeBoer lost in six to the eventual Cup champion, St. Louis Blues.  Now, he brings in his whole new team in Vegas after beating the surprising and somewhat tough-to-beat Vancouver Canucks.

For Dallas, a very familiar name to Lightning fans, Rick Bowness leads the Stars to the Conference Finals. Brought on last December to replace Jim Montgomery, Bowness has been a stabilizing influence for the Stars. Why shouldn’t he?  Behind an NHL bench for over 30 years and over 2000 games as an assistant or head coach.  Dallas is his sixth head coaching position. The reason he’s familiar to Lightning fans is he was the Associate Coach for Jon Cooper in Tampa for five years.  Advantage: Slightly for Dallas 

Flash Forwards

The Stars forwards produced in their second round series against Colorado.  After that series was over, Dallas averaged four goals against the Avalanche in the seven games. So, the good news for this Texas team is that Alexander Radulov, Denis Gurisnov and veteran Joe Paveski have found their goal scoring touch. If Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin can heat up, it will push Dallas forward.  After that, it could be a short series.

For the Golden Knights, their scoring was feast or famine in their second round match-up with Vancouver. Twice scoring five goals in a game and in two games scoring a total of one goal. They were able to shut out the Canucks in the deciding Game 7. Led by Alex Tuch with eight playoff goals, Vegas has proven offensive scorers.  A roster that includes Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith can put up points.  In addition to these players, Vegas has veterans like Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny, it’s surprising that Vegas hasn’t scored more this postseason.  Advantage: Big for Dallas

Don’t Get Defensive

The Vegas defense has been stingy.  Allowing 2.33 goals per game is the best goals against by any team in the Western Conference. Led by Shea Theodore, the Knights also have postseason veterans, Alec Martinez and Nate Schmidt.  Above all, DeBoer has them playing a stifling defense that works hard to not allow good scoring chances.  So, if they continue this defensive play, they will make the Stars work for every point.

This is a stingy group of Vegas defenders as well giving up only 24 even strength goals in their 16 playoff games. Compare that to the 38 even strength goals given up by Dallas.  In all fairness, Dallas was playing the high scoring Avalanche in the second round.  Vegas is also a hard hitting defense.  So far, they have had 573 hits in the playoffs.  This is good for second among all Western Conference teams.  One potential problem for Vegas is that the team that leads ALL teams in hits is their foe in the Conference Finals – Dallas.  The Stars lead all playoff teams with 651 hits.

There are some heady defensive players in Dallas too.  John Klingberg, Jamie Oleksiak and Miro Heiskanen are leading the back end for the Stars.  Heiskanen is among the top point getters in all the playoffs.  His transition game from defensive zone to offensive attack is very good.  Advantage: Big for Vegas

Isn’t that Special?

Both teams have relied on their effectiveness on special teams to help win their two previous series.  Vegas has an edge in the penalty kill percentage, by killing off almost 88% of their penalties. Similarly, Dallas has been no slouch killing penalties at a 82% clip.

The reverse is true on the power play.  Dallas is converting 28% of their chances with the extra man.  Vegas is slightly over 20%.  Clearly, the key for either team is to avoid taking penalties.  Advantage: Slight to Dallas

Minding the Net

The last area of comparison is the goalies. For Vegas, what may have been a goalie controversy has been settled in these playoffs.  Robin Lehner is the clear number one goalie for the Knights with Marc-Andre Fleury in the backup role. For Dallas, Ben Bishop had been the number one goalie but has been battling injuries throughout the playoffs. The oft-injured Bishop has only played in three of the 16 games the Stars have played. Anton Khudobin has filled in nicely for Bishop in net for Dallas.  In the 13 games he’s played, he is 8-5 with a 2.94 goals against and a 91% save percentage. No word as of yet as to whether Bishop, a former Lightning netminder, will see any action in this series.

Comparatively, for Vegas, Lehner has been a wall in goal.  Saving almost 92% of the shots he’s faced and giving up less than two goals (1.99) a game.  Coupled with the way the Vegas defense is playing, the pendulum swings in favor of Vegas.  Advantage: Big for Vegas

I started this Western Conference Finals preview by saying it is a tale of two teams.  There are clearly strengths that each team possesses.  In conclusion, the question becomes which team utilizes their strength more than the other.  Guess that’s what the playoffs are all about.  Will Lehner’s goaltending lead Vegas to the Cup Final?  Can Dallas score seemingly at will against the stingy Vegas defense?  Will Vegas produce enough offense to win the requisite four games?  Now, if I tell you, then you may not bother to watch.  In other words, I will tell you this:  Prediction:  Dallas in seven.

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