The majority of minutes in their Conference Final series with Vegas was pretty dull to watch, but thanks to a few well-timed bursts of scoring, the Dallas Stars have won the West in a mere five games. Despite that impressive feat, they’ll likely head into the Cup Final as severe underdogs no matter who they play, and as rude as it may sound, it’s hard not to feel like we deserve better than what they have to offer.
For the first 50 minutes of Game 5 on Monday night, it looked as though Vegas was going to extend the series. Facing elimination, they got on the board with a Chandler Stephenson breakaway goal in the first period and looked superior all through a scoreless second, then doubled their advantage at the start of the third with a shot from Reilly Smith.
But after lying low for the lion’s share of the game, the Stars decided to pull out a few of the rapid-fire goals that have defined this match-up. A traffic jam in front of Robin Lehner helped Jamie Benn halve the deficit at 9:54, and six minutes later, Game 7 hero Joel Kiviranta got a clutch power play goal to force overtime.
In the extra period, it was again the opportunistic special teams unit that put Dallas over. Vegas’s Zach Whitecloud took an unfortunate early penalty for delay of game, and Denis Gurianov capitalized with a one-timer winner. The Stars advanced, having won four games against the Knights by scores of 1-0, 3-2, 2-1. and 3-2. All of those victories have been technically interesting by virtue of the close scores, but none of them felt like the best team in the West rising above their closest competition, as a Conference Final should. Rather, the Stars played unremarkable but resilient hockey that allowed them the bounces they needed to edge out the top seed.
To immediately see why the Stars in the Final feels so underwhelming, all one has to do is look in the score column. While the Knights boast a goal differential of +13 in the bubble after last night, and on the opposite side of the bracket the Lightning and Islanders are at +17 and +15, the Stars have actually allowed more goals than they’ve scored since the restart. They’ve grabbed 64 pucks out of their own nets while putting only 62 in their opponents’.
They don’t care about that, however, as evidenced by a Tyler Seguin quote that got a lot of play after the clincher.
Seguin is somewhat right—not in the sense that how many goals you score and how many goals you give up is “overrated,” or even “analytics,” but at least in the sense that everyone would prefer to be the overachieving Stars and not the underachieving Knights. Still, whether it’s against Tampa or against an Islanders team that wins three straight over Tampa, the Stars give off all the bad vibes of a good-not-great team ready to be devoured.
Though their battles in the earlier rounds against the Flames and then the Avalanches weren’t the kind of grind-it-out struggles that made this Conference Final feel like a chore, the Avs series in particular raises serious questions about the Stars’ ability to handle an offensive onslaught from the Lightning. Goaltender Anton Khudobin delivered some remarkable performances in the four wins against the Knights, but last series he was shaky and prone to allowing goals in bunches. In only one of seven games did his save percentage creep above .910, and given Vegas’s struggles with scoring in their second-round bout with the Canucks, it’s perhaps easier to blame the Knights for failing to score than it is to credit Khudobin for winning the past few games.
Outside of goal, the Stars do have a 21-year-old force of nature in defenseman Miro Heiskanen, and they have vets like Alexander Radulov, Jamie Benn, and Joe Pavelski to carry the forward lines. (Seguin is there, too, whenever he wakes up.) But at the risk of sounding corny, they just seem to be lacking a kind of … magic. The kind that the Blues had when they went worst to first. The kind that the Capitals had when they finally got over the hump. The kind that Sidney Crosby has whenever he touches the puck. The kind that the Lightning have as they try to redeem themselves, or the Islanders have as they continue to prove they’re stronger without John Tavares. The Stars, in comparison, are simply a solid team that have managed to grab 12 wins when they needed them. They’ll need to be more than that if they’re going to win four more.