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Star Gazing: Awaiting an Opponent

September 15, 2020, 4:09 PM ET [11 Comments]
Bill Meltzer
Dallas Stars Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
One season after falling a Game 7 overtime loss away from reaching the Western Conference Finals, the Dallas Stars find themselves awaiting a team to play in the Stanley Cup Final after defeating the Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the Western Conference Final.

Most likely, the Stars will be up against a powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning team. The Bolts current hold a three games to one lead over the New York Islanders (who are 2-6 over their last eight playoff games) and have a chance to wrap up their Eastern Conference Final series tonight.
The Stars would enter such a series as a decided underdog but they were also an underdog against the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas. Even back in the First Round series with the Calgary Flames, there were many who doubted that the Stars would advance.

There have been a lot of questions asked as to how Dallas got this far. The tea started the season with a dismal 1-7-1 record. They changed head coaches around the December holidays when Jim Montgomery was dismissed (for behavioral and alcohol abuse related reasons rather than performance reasons). They ranked 26th in the NHL in scoring (2.58) and no one but Tyer Seguin had more than 50 points. Even Seguin had only 50 points on the nose in the regular season and has a modest two goals and eight points in the playoffs. Denis Gurianov led the team with exactly 20 goals.

So what sort of alchemy has gotten the Stars this far? There is no alchemy. Dallas has a dynamic and young blueline. Miro Heiskanen is a two-way stud defenseman and will be for many years to come. John Klingberg is able to be slotted a little better now. There is a deep group up front with three lines that can step up on a given night. The blueline also helps contribute offensively. Whereas many teams this postseason have struggled on the power play, the Stars enter the Cup Finals clicking at 27.3 percent; which has offset being outscored 39-41 at five-on-five. That's not a great formula for success in the regular season, but it can supply enough to win in a best-of-seven playoff scenario.

The Stars boasted the Western Conference's lowest goals against average -- 2nd lowest in the NHL -- during the regular season (2.52) but have had to find a variety of ways to win in the playoffs. The team's 3.05 GAA in the postseason doesn't look great but whether it was living to tell the tale of trading off scoring chances with Colorado in a high scoring series, or beating Vegas in a series where there was only one game where a team scored as many as three regulation goals (which was Game 2, the Stars' only loss in the series), Dallas showed resiliency in playing the game that was in front of them THAT particular night or series.

Last but certainly not least, goaltending is hockey's great equalizer. Did I think the Stars would get to the Final with Anton Khudobin rather than Ben Bishop carrying the load on his shoulders? No, nor would most people. But has Khudobin over his career shown the ability to get hot at times and steal some games, even as a tandem or backup goalie? Yes.

There have also been "you know them when you see them" intangibles at work. The Stars have been playing for one another -- which is a cliche but is vital for teams that go this deep, because it involves players picking up the slack if someone else falters and it entails a whole lot of personal sacrifice. The Stars players also have gone all out for Rick Bowness ever since he took over the behind the bench. It's a united front and a close-knit squad with a balance of youth and experience, offensively skill players and underrated two-way talents, plus a high degree of self-confidence.

It's taken a long time and a lot of trial-and-error over the years to get to this point. The Lindy Ruff teams lit up the scoreboard but couldn't keep the puck out of their net. During Ken Hitchcock's one-year second tenure, a lot of the defensive issues were largely cleaned up but the team couldn't score. Montgomery, generally a "players' coach," got the team to be better at playing through adversity -- sometimes with not-so-gentle cajoling of his own, not to mention Jim Lites' infamous Dec. 2018 speech about team captain Jamie Benn and Seguin not pulling their weight at the level the team needed.

This season, general manager Jim Nill -- as he's done in other recent offseasons -- added veterans who'd been in the playoff wars for many years. Joe Pavelski has been stepped up big at times in the postseason. Corey Perry, whom many (including myself) thought was toast as an effective NHL power forward, is clearly in decline but still chipped in at a few key times and still infuriates opposing players.

It takes good design and a willingness to change on the fly to build a Cup contender, which Nill has painstakingly done over his tenure. It also take a bit of good fortune in peaking at just the right time of the season and getting a vital bounce or two in those OT and one-goal games. At its crux, though, strong goaltending, good depth and the ability to win some games where the style isn't to your on-paper advantage goes a long way.

No, the Stars won't be favored if they play Tampa in the Stanley Cup Final. But they won't be a pushover, either.
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