The majority of this year’s Western Conference Final between the Dallas Stars and the Vegas Golden Knights has been like watching a tug-of-war match between two sides of exactly equal strength: competitive, but not exactly exciting. Still, those viewers who hold steady through long stretches of scoreless stalemates have been rewarded on a couple occasions with a few 20-odd minute bursts of action.
One of those was the second period of Game 2, when the Knights finally found their offense after hours of listlessness to score three quick goals that evened the series. And the other came Thursday night in Game 3, when a Jamie Oleksiak breakaway goal with 17 seconds left in the second period gave the Stars a 1-0 lead and set up a wild finish.
Oleksiak’s goal emboldened not his own team, but the Knights, who spent the third trying to torture standout Dallas goalie Anton Khudobin until he cracked. They nearly succeeded, putting two pucks in the net on 18 shots, but even with a measly 4 SOG on their own end, the Stars were able to send it to overtime with an opportunistic goal from captain Jamie Benn.
You’d be forgiven if you had braced yourself for a long, ugly extra session in which both teams struggled to gain an inch of ice, but Alexander Radulov didn’t want to stay out there any longer. Just half a minute into the first OT period, the most clutch player of the Stars’ postseason became the wide-open recipient of a cross-ice pass while speeding into the attacking zone. Radulov, who had showed his frustration with two penalties in the last game, was nothing but smooth as he controlled the puck and rocketed towards Robin Lehner. He set himself up for a wrister in the left face-off dot and dinged the puck off the post and in to put the Stars up 2-1.
“(Pavelski) made a hell of a play, and I think somebody got the puck out of our zone and made a stretch pass to Pav, Pav saw me flying—well, skating—on the other side of the ice,” Radulov said after the game. “There was kind of nobody there, so he made a good pass, and I get into the zone, just close my eyes, and shoot it.” It was a description so mythical that it had his teammates cracking up at the podium.
Radulov’s 2019–20 campaign, overall, was a bit of a letdown, as his 34 points were less than half of what he put up in each of his first two seasons with Dallas. But even if this year didn’t further his claim to be considered in the same breath as fellow Texas attackers Seguin and Benn, he’s been invaluable to the Stars when it’s mattered most. Radulov has 40 percent of his team’s game-winners this postseason, including another OT goal against Calgary, and that doesn’t even account for the critical pair he scored in a 5-4 Game 7 against Colorado last round.
Though many pegged the 34-year-old Radulov for NHL glory soon after his league debut, it hasn’t been a straightforward journey to Conference Final heroics. Originally drafted by the Predators, Radulov established himself as a major offensive threat in two seasons in his early 20s, but decided he would rather play in his native Russia. Aside from a brief 2012 detour back through Nashville, where a curfew violation overshadowed anything he did on the ice, Radulov stayed in the KHL until 2016, when he signed a one-year deal with the Canadiens that eventually led to a five-year deal with the Stars.
In Dallas, whether it’s because of his good friendship with fellow Russian Khudobin or just because his team is winning so many games, Radulov finally looks and feels like he belongs in the NHL. And as top offensive threat Tyler Seguin continues to struggle to get on the board (his assist last night broke a six-game point drought), the Stars need Radulov at least as much as he needed them.