With Game 7 against the Colorado Avalanche on the horizon, the Dallas Stars prepared for their biggest game in recent memory. And though it took some unexpected twists and turns and required a few unlikely heroes, they secured a 5-4 win in overtime to punch their ticket to the 2020 Western Conference Final.
Joel Kiviranta scored the game-winning goal in overtime to complete his first career hat trick, secure a 5-4 win against the Colorado Avalanche, and punch the Dallas Stars‘ ticket to the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2008.
Just like we all expected, right?
In a 2020 year and 2019-20 season that has been chock-full of surprises, exhilarating highs, infuriating lows, and plenty of promise diluted with familiar uncertainty, the Stars found a way to keep that trend going on Friday afternoon.
In the biggest game of the franchise’s current era, Dallas squared off with the Colorado Avalanche in a Game 7 for all the marbles on Friday. It was their third time in a Second Round Game 7 since 2016, and they were still searching for their first win in such a scenario. Legacies were on the line, history was set to be made one way or the other, and the storylines were plentiful as the Stars tried to avoid a complete meltdown as their 3-1 series lead turned into a 3-3 tie. The spotlight was on the Stars to capitalize on the “win now” label and prove themselves to be more than just a second-round contender.
And though it took a number of twists and turns and unveiled some unlikely heroes along the way, the Dallas Stars accomplished their goal and pushed into the final four of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“Unreal feeling,” Stars defenseman John Klingberg said. “It’s been a great series.”
It started with Alexander Radulov and ended with Joel Kiviranta, though a strong supporting cast chipped in along the way.
After the Stars got on the board early with a power play goal from Radulov, it took the Avalanche a total of 69 seconds to respond when a Vladislav Namestnikov shot found its way through traffic to beat Anton Khudobin. A few minutes later, Andre Burakovsky scored on a Stars turnover to make it 2-1 going into first intermission.
“It’s a Game 7. It’s life on the line. Like I said before, it doesn’t matter who’s scoring. There are 22 guys doing one job to win a hockey game. It wouldn’t be fair to all of the teammates to say that. The guys work for me. Even on those goals that I scored today, it was five guys working. … I’ll take it, but it doesn’t matter who’s scoring. It matters that we move on and win the series. That’s the big thing for us.” – Alexander Radulov on his performance in Game 7
And while Stars fans on Twitter began to brace for a potentially devastating result in the final 40 minutes, the second period simply became the start of the actual show.
Kiviranta opened the scoring in the second by redirecting a Denis Gurianov shot to tie the game at 2-2. In his second ‘actual’ NHL playoff game (not counting the round-robin), he was one of the most noticeable forwards on the ice for Dallas in the early portion of the game. He was digging pucks out of the corners, winning one-on-one battles along the boards, and bringing some speed and juice to the Dallas offense. That turned into his first career playoff goal, and the first of three on the day.
But the excitement turned out to be short-lived as Nazem Kadri scored a power-play goal less than three minutes later to reestablish the Colorado lead at 3-2. He got another high-danger chance a few minutes later near the crease, but was denied by the glove of Khudobin to keep the game within a shot.
As the third period opened, there was no telling what might happen in the potential final stanza of a dramatic, wacky and riveting second round series. The only thing that was certain was the magnitude it would play in shaping Dallas Stars history.
And boy, did it ever.
Radulov found the back of the net for his second power play goal of the night midway through the period to tie the game at 3-3. A few minutes later, Namestnikov struck again on a net-front scramble after the Stars couldn’t get the puck out of the zone.
Just as doomsday protocol seemed to settle in with the Stars having less than four minutes to save their rollercoaster season, Kiviranta stepped up again. After taking control out of the face-off following the Avalanche goal, Kiviranta drove to the net and cleaned up a rebound from a Roope Hintz shot to tie the game just 10 seconds later.
“It actually started on the bench. Even when they scored that fourth goal and we came right back, our bench was very positive. It starts with the leaders and the veterans that we have in the room. Listen, we’ve been here. We were here last year against St. Louis in Game 7 going into overtime. We’ve been there, and it’s our turn and our time.” – Rick Bowness on the Stars’ positive mindset through Game 7
After a wild final few minutes that ended up scoreless, the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche entered sudden death in a do-or-die game. And after a few scoring chances for the Avalanche early in the extra frame, Kiviranta found some space in front of the net and cashed in on a pass from Andrej Sekera, who was camped behind the net.
Game over, series over, hope restored and maximized. With the unlikeliest of heroes being found in a 24-year-old that was inserted into the lineup to merely fill in for an injured Andrew Cogliano, the Dallas Stars cleared a hurdle that had burdened them for four years and moved within four wins of a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.
“I didn’t even know what to expect for this day,” Kiviranta said. “This was the first Game 7 of my life. It felt like a normal game for me and it was pretty fun.”
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Kiviranta’s monumental performance is one that will be talked about in-depth for years to come. He was signed by the organization as a free agent out of Finland on May 31, 2019 and was expected to be a depth piece on offense that could potentially contend for an NHL roster spot and serve as an insurance option if injuries became an issue for the Stars.
But his performance in Game 7 is enough to warrant an invite by the Dallas Stars to participate in a ceremonial puck drop years down the road during an anniversary season. That’s the magic of a Game 7, especially for a rookie that had 13 career NHL games under his belt as he entered the win-or-go-home showdown with Colorado.
As the post-goal celebrations roared on (including Kiviranta being given the team chain for his performance and exclaiming, “We’re not going home”) and postgame interviews began, there was a wave of varied emotions taking over.
For Kiviranta, he was still coming to terms with delivering the biggest possible performance on the biggest stage of his career. You could hear and see the emotions in his personality as he answered questions from media members that were curious to learn more about him. He mentioned that he had already gotten a number of messages on his phone, and that was followed up by heaps of praise from Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, Rick Bowness, and the entirety of Dallas Stars Twitter.
“Whenever we played him, we always had a ton of confidence in him,” Bowness said about Kiviranta in the regular season. “There was a game in Colorado earlier in the year when we brought him up and Joe Pavelski tapped me on the knee and said, `Bones, give me Joel.’ So, the players have a tremendous amount of confidence in Kivi. He’s undaunted by anything out there. He’s not intimidated by one thing, and he’s a great little competitor.”
“I like how our group stuck with it tonight, and we had the secret Finnish weapon over here,” Benn said. “What Kivi did was pretty spectacular. Those are the things you dream about as a kid when you’re playing in the driveway and whatnot. That just became a reality for him.”
“We know what we’re going to get every shift from him. The goals are just an added bonus. The effort and discipline he plays with and what he brings to the team and the game was expected.” – Rick Bowness on Kiviranta’s play
For Benn, Klingberg, Tyler Seguin, Radek Faksa, and Mattias Janmark, the win was a needed sigh of relief. The five had been through a Second Round Game 7 loss in 2016 and 2019 with the Dallas Stars and had yet to see the third round.
“It’s a lot of excitement for sure right now and some kind of relief as well,” Klingberg said. “It feels good and we’re gonna feel good about ourselves here.”
For the majority of the roster, it was a chance to redeem themselves and finish the business started in 2018-19. The Stars had been a surprise team in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs after knocking off the Nashville Predators in six games in the first round, but had fallen one goal short of advancing in double overtime of Game 7 against the Blues in round two. Getting over that hump shows impressive and needed progress for a veteran group that is determined to win now.
“We were in the exact same situation last year and came out on the wrong end of it,” Benn said. “This year, it’s nice to get that win and move on. Our team has put in a lot of hard work. That Colorado team is pretty damn good. It really took every guy in that dressing room to get that win.”
For Rick Bowness, this is the biggest win of his NHL career as a head coach. He may still be under the interim tag, but he managed to lead the Dallas Stars to a point they haven’t reached since 2008. He did something that the five head coaches preceding him couldn’t do and has this Dallas Stars team halfway to its second Stanley Cup title and first since 1999.
Say what you want about him, but he’s done his part in getting the team to this point. From assistant coach for a year and a half to head coach since December, he’s had both successful efforts and questionable decisions that deserve blame. But the fact of the matter is he’s helped the Dallas Stars navigate highs and lows and has them in the Western Conference Final for the first time in the Jim Nill, Tom Gaglardi, and Jamie Benn era. That’s a special accomplishment.
“I’m just happy for the guys,” Bowness said. “It’s great for the organization, for Tom and all the management and fans in Dallas. It’s great that we move on. This isn’t about me whatsoever. I’m an old guy just enjoying the ride.
“This is a great moment for our organization. But keeping that in mind, we’re halfway home. That’s where we are. We came here to win the Stanley Cup and that’s our goal. It’s great for the fans in Dallas and I think it’s great for the organization. It’s not about me at all. I’m just enjoying the ride.”
And now, the Dallas Stars have another new series and new opponent in the Vegas Golden Knights to break down and prepare for on Sunday night. The road to the Stanley Cup is a long and arduous one, and that’s only been magnified with quick turnarounds between series and little rest time.
But for the Stars to win a massively important game for the franchise in the wild and unexpected way that they did seems fitting. The 2019-20 season has been all about resilience for the Dallas Stars. Whether it’s a 1-7-1 start, unexpected mid-season coaching change, Winter Classic, 0-4-2 end to the season, pandemic, or stale start to the Return To Play, Dallas keeps finding ways to bounce back and deliver at the most important moments of the year.
A newfound offensive surge, reliable play from their “1B” goaltender, special teams success, and seizing the moment when it’s there for the taking have helped with that so far. The only proper question to ask now is, “What’s next?”
And in the craziest of ways on Friday, a rookie/black ace was inserted into the lineup and helped the Stars knock off a Stanley Cup favorite in the most important game of the franchise’s recent era.
If that isn’t the definition of 2020, nothing is.