After scoring 49 goals through the first two rounds of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Dallas Stars flipped a switch and went back to the basics in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final. The result? A dominant 1-0 win against Vegas. The stifling Stars returned, and that could be a substantial benefit in this series.
“I think we just played our game, kept it simple, and worked hard. We were just committed to Dallas Stars hockey.”
When asked about what went so well in the first 40 minutes following their Game 1 win against the Vegas Golden Knights, Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn used an answer that had become rather popular with the team throughout the 2019-20 season.
Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness echoed the sentiment a few minutes later during his postgame chat with the media.
“That’s Dallas Stars hockey,” Bowness said. “For two periods, that was Dallas Stars hockey. We were skating, we were on top of them, we were creating a lot of offense from good defensive structure all over the ice. That second period was as good a period as we’ve played and we came out of the gates strong again. That’s how we play.”
That’s an on-the-money assessment of the Stars’ efforts in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final on Sunday night. It was, in its sincerest form, Dallas Stars hockey.
After scoring 49 goals and giving up 46 through the first two rounds of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs (13 games), the Stars got back to the basics on Sunday night in one of the most important games in the franchise’s recent history. It was their first appearance in the Western Conference Final since 2008, and they were matched up against a Golden Knights team that had earned the title of “Stanley Cup favorite” after an impressive back half of the season and start of the NHL’s Return To Play.
“It’s important. Obviously, you go through a hard-fought seven game series, and the way it ended was pretty exciting and pretty emotional. We had yesterday to regroup and knew that the start of the game was going to be important tonight. I thought our group came out with a good effort.” – Jamie Benn on Stars’ Game 1 effort
But instead of continuing to adopt the high-flying and risky style of play that had carried them through matchups against the Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche, the Stars focused on playing the stingy, defense-first style that had helped them post the second-lowest goals against average in the NHL during the 2019-20 season.
And it paid off as the Stars secured a low-scoring, 1-0 win to take an early 1-0 series lead.
“I know we only scored one goal, but we had lots of opportunities tonight,” Bowness said. “[Marc-Andre] Fleury was outstanding for them, as [Anton Khudobin] was for us. Some nights the puck goes in, some nights it doesn’t. Regardless of that, you have to battle and you have to stick to your structure.
“Sometimes, you have to bend a little but as long as you don’t break, and our guys didn’t break. That’s Dallas Stars hockey. I love the way we played tonight.”
It all started with another fast start by the Stars. They were quick out of the gate, laying five quick hits and ramping up the physicality. And after 2 minutes, 36 seconds of play, a blocked Jamie Benn shot found John Klingberg‘s stick in the slot, and he fired it past Fleury to give Dallas a 1-0 lead.
“That line stepped in and had a huge impact on the first shift,” Klingberg said. “It’s easy to follow after. I think we scored on their second or third shift. It’s a huge part of our game to get the puck there. We know we’re fast and heavy, so let’s spend even more time there.”
But unlike in the Colorado series where an early goal simply spawned another three or four by the end of the first period, the scoreboard remained unchanged the rest of the night. That was due in large part to the Stars finding a way to flip the switch and return to their roots of defensive hockey (and some timely saves by Anton Khudobin).
It was best highlighted in a stellar second period showing as the Stars held the Golden Knights without a shot on goal for the first 8:38 of the frame. Dallas had a 21-8 advantage in scoring chances and 12-4 advantage in shots on goal, looked dominant on the forecheck, and had Vegas scrambling for answers and trying to generate offensive pressure.
And when the Golden Knights used a last-ditch effort in the third period, the Stars committed to playing as a five-man unit and protecting their net. Vegas outshot Dallas 13-2 in the third period, but only generated one high-danger scoring chance, according to Natural Stat Trick. Meanwhile, the Stars’ forwards committed to their defensive style, the defensemen clogged up shooting lanes and protected the crease, and Khudobin turned aside all 25 shots faced to become the second goalie in Dallas Stars history to post a shutout in the Western Conference Final.
“They know he’s such a great competitor. When the puck drops, he’s ready to go and he’s going to battle for them, so the guys love playing in front of him. He just has that loose personality. He’s one of those guys that says funny things at the right time and the right moment. The guys feed off of him.” – Rick Bowness on Khudobin’s play
“They’re a huge part of the game plan,” Jamie Oleksiak said about the forwards committing to defense. “I think when we work as a five-man unit, we play a responsible game that brings us success. Tonight was a good example of that. Especially through the first two periods, the forwards supported us really well, got back, and made our jobs a lot easier. I think that’s a big part of our game.”
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The Stars returned to their old ways on Sunday night, built a lead off of strong defensive play, and shifted gears to frustrating the opposition at key moments in the game. And even though the third period was a bit close for comfort as Vegas applied pressure, it was a third period that this kind of Dallas Stars team could thrive within.
“We’re not really happy with how we played in the third period,” Klingberg said. “I think we had a few chances to score 2-0 in the second period. Dobby stepped up today and played a great game for us. He won the game for us. I think we gave them a little bit too much life in the third period. We’ll take it and move on up one here.”
But for the Stars, they saw a lot of positive signs in an impressive win that provided them with early momentum in the series. They were 4/4 on the penalty kill and now have a 92.6 percent success rate when shorthanded over the past six games. Khudobin seems to be getting better with each game and looked both calm and confident in his first ever conference finals appearance. The Stars’ new lines looked crisp and played an effective role as Bowness rolled all four at a pretty balanced rate.
Joel Kiviranta was noticeable once again, bringing physicality and speed alongside Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov. Joel Hanley was in the lineup for the second consecutive game and led the team in blocked shots while playing a quiet, yet effective role on the third pairing. Jamie Benn helped set the tempo early, and the team followed his lead as they have a number of times in this postseason.
“Loved it. He comes out and plays that hard, he’s a huge influence on the outcome of the game and he’s a huge influence on our hockey club. We don’t expect Jamie to go out there, run all over the ice, belt everybody and knock them around. The hits will come. If you play your position, do your job, the hits are going to be present themselves and you don’t have to chase the game. He wasn’t chasing the game. When the hits were available, he was there. He handled the puck well and made some great plays. That was a very solid game from Jamie.” – Rick Bowness on Benn’s play
The Stars had 49 hits, blocked 15 shots, won 60 percent of the face-offs, and held a Vegas team that was averaging 37.1 shots on goal per game in the postseason to just 25. To top it all off, they got the game-winning goal from a defenseman who was activated in the rush in John Klingberg.
All in all, you couldn’t have asked for a more dominant start to the series for the Dallas Stars. It’s a start that gives them early momentum, but also sets the expectation bar moving forward in the playoffs.
If the Stars are going to win this series and advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2000, playing their tight and suffocating style of hockey could be a key in doing so.
While it was fun to watch the Stars fly up and down the ice and take risks while building on a newfound offensive swagger through the first two rounds, the Golden Knights present a different challenge.
This is a Golden Knights team that rolls four lines, relies on veteran talent, and has a cast of star players that can turn a series on its head quickly. Their goaltending tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner is arguably the best in the NHL and gives them a unique one-two punch that can be used on a nightly basis.
To top it all off, they were playing some of the best defensive hockey coming into this series, giving up 2.08 goals per game and taking the most shots on goal per game (38.3) while allowing the fewest (24.3) through the first two rounds.
This is a Vegas team that went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018 (their first year in existence) and fell one win short of a trip to the second round in 2019. They have been and remain a legitimate Stanley Cup contender due to their depth, talent, coaching, and strategy.
For the Stars to take Game 1 is an impressive and encouraging result. But this series will likely have just as many twists and turns as the Colorado series.
If Dallas can continue their stellar defensive play and continue to limit the Golden Knights’ abilities and efforts across the ice, they have a real shot at pulling off another series win as the “underdog.”
“That’s our game,” Bowness said. “That’s how we have to play, regardless of who we play.”