If we told you back in March that the Dallas Stars would be playing for the 2020 Stanley Cup you’d probably have told us to delete our account. But this has been a year and a season unlike any other.
The Stars entered Game 5 of the West Finals up three games to one and then entered the final 19:45 of the third period trailing 2-0. For any other team that might have been impossible to overcome against a quality opponent such as the Vegas Golden Knights.
But Jamie Benn’s rebound goal (10:06 left) and Joel Kiviranta’s tying goal with less than four minutes left (3:47) in regulation set the stage for yet another thrilling Stars overtime win. Dallas found themselves on a gift power play (puck over the glass by Zach Whitecloud) 2:15 into the extra session.
During the ensuing man-advantage, one of the Golden Knights lost their stick and the Stars pounced on the opportunity and in the process punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final. Denis Gurianov wired a shot past Robin Lehner and in an instant Dallas won 3-2 and had advanced to the final round of their two-month odyssey in the Edmonton Bubble.
Quite the rollercoaster ride it has been for the Stars and their fans since the NHL unpressed pause on the 2020 Season. To all those who think an asterisk should be next to whoever wins the Cup this year – yeah, maybe you are right. They should have one for how much more difficult it has been to play hockey than in a normal year when the entire planet isn’t battling a global pandemic.
Here are our three takeaways from the Game 5 win that propelled Dallas to become Western Conference Champs.
1. By the Numbers
The Stars franchise has advanced to the Cup Final for the third time since relocating to Dallas from Minnesota. At some point in each of those three instances, they had to eliminate the Colorado Avalanche in a Game 7.
In these playoffs, the Stars have three wins after trailing entering the third period, which is the most in the NHL. During the regular season, the Stars had nine wins when trailing at the start of the third period, which also was the most in the NHL. In one-goal games this postseason they are 10-1.
Gurianov is the fifth rookie in NHL history to score a series-clinching goal that sent his team to the Cup Final. He joins Adam Henrique (2012), Darren Helm (2009), Jacques Lemaire (1968), and Pep Kelly (1935). He currently leads all rookies in goals (9) and points (17) and is five goals away from tying Dino Ciccarelli’s record (1981) for most goals by a rookie in one postseason. Gurianov has eight points (5g-3a) in the Stars’ three series-clinching wins.
Kiviranta is just the second NHLer in the history of the league to record his first five career postseason points in series clinchers, joining Peter Zezel (1985). If we’d have told you that he’d factor into the game-tying goal and game-winning goal in the game that sent the Stars to their first Cup Final in 20 years, you’d probably think we were crazy. Unless we told you that was after his hat trick propelled Dallas past Game 7 in the previous round that is. Then it would have seemed like an okay statement. 2020, right?
2. Love For Lindell
We get that in the hoopla of clinching a berth in the Cup Final some details might get lost in the sauce. But we’re here to give some love to one of the Stars’ unsung heroes, defenseman Esa Lindell. Yes, he had an assist on Benn’s goal that got the comeback started. But his play in the defensive end, particularly on the penalty kill deserves some DAP.
The 26-year-old Finnish defenseman has been a tower of power for the Stars during this run and now in his fourth full season as an NHLer he had really been a key cog in the Dallas engine on the backend.
During Game 5 he blocked three shots and had four hits. Vegas was 0-3 on the power-play in Game 5, and for the series, they went 3-for-22.
In 21 playoff games, Lindell (1g-5a) has dished out 59 hits and blocked 46 shots with some part of his body. But what’s most impressive to us – over those 21 games he’s taken just one measly minor penalty, and that came back on August 5 (feels like a lifetime ago) in the second of three round-robin games.
When you think of the Stars defense you think of Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg, but right behind them is Lindell who is making quite the name for himself this summer. His pairing with Andrej Sekera has been a humongous big part of the Stars’ success through three rounds.
3. Khudobin For Conn Smythe
How many NHL teams out there would be able to withstand the loss of their number one goalie and advance to the Stanley Cup Final? Not a whole lot of them is the answer. But that’s just what Anton Khudobin has done with his goaltending partner Ben Bishop unfit to play in all but two games and 13:43 of another.
The lovable goalie from Kazakstan improved to 12-6 in these playoffs with one shutout, a .920 save percentage, and a 2.62 goals-against average. Before this postseason he had played a total of 38 minutes over the past two playoffs with Dallas and Boston. The 34-year-old has paid his dues during his 11-year career spanning 218 regular-season games and 198 wins, and now he is reaping the rewards of hard work.
If he wins four more games and the Stars win the Cup, Khudobin would tie his regular season win total from each of the past three seasons; his career-high in a single season is 19 wins with the Carolina Hurricanes (2013-14).
Of the remaining players left in the tournament, Khudobin has to be in the mix for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point from Tampa Bay are also in that discussion, no doubt. If the New York Islanders somehow advance we can probably add Josh Bailey’s name to the list, as well as Brock Nelson and Anthony Beauvillier. Gurianov and Heiskanen also deserve to be included.
The Conn Smythe Trophy is given “to the most valuable player for his team in the playoffs.” He just eliminated the two best teams in the West. If there’s no Khudobin in Dallas, and Bishop is still hurt, where would the Stars be? Eliminated in the first round likely.
The Stars may or may not have some rest before their next game. If Tampa Bay wins Game 5 against New York, Game 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final could take place on Thursday night in the Edmonton Bubble. If New York can stave off elimination, the Stars will get some more rest and relaxation time, maybe watch a movie, who knows.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.