In yet another pivotal playoff game, the Dallas Stars needed resilience and some big performances from big players. They got all of it, and it turned into a 3-2 overtime win in Game 3 against the Vegas Golden Knights. But for this Stars team, it’s just another thrilling chapter in a wacky, entertaining ride.
The Dallas Stars really needed a win in Game 3 of the 2020 Western Conference Final.
After a lackluster performance led to them falling on the wrong end of a 3-0 shutout in Game 2 against the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday, Game 3 provided a significant pivotal element for the series.
Sure, the winner of Game 3 in a 1-1 series in an NHL conference final since 1981-82 owns a series record of 32-9 all time. And yes, the Stars needed a momentum boost after falling short in terms of effort and execution on Tuesday.
But for both Dallas and Vegas, Game 3 presented a chance to get ahead. It was a chance to gain the upper hand in a series that had already featured a dominant performance, stifling defense, and exquisite goaltending by both clubs. It was an opportunity for both teams to take the series lead and inch within two games of the Stanley Cup Final.
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So, for a Game 3 in the Western Conference Final, there was plenty on the line.
And for the Dallas Stars, that was all they needed to know as they put together another wildly entertaining and intense performance that ended with the fastest playoff overtime goal in franchise history as Alexander Radulov scored 31 seconds into the extra period to complete the 3-2 win.
It was another display of resilience and another example of how this team bends, but rarely breaks in big moments during their run through the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They’re a determined bunch, and that’s carried them to two wins shy of their first berth in the Stanley Cup Final since 2000.
But for this 2019-20 Dallas Stars team, playing resilient hockey and laughing in the face of conflict, uncertainty, and danger has become a rather regular occurrence.
“I just feel like our group has faced a lot this year,” Stars captain Jamie Benn said. “[We’re] resilient, and we found a way to get it done.”
It all began with another weathering of the storm in the first period. The Stars were outshot 12-4 in the opening frame and had to kill off a penalty going into first intermission, but remained physical on the puck and heavy on the forecheck. They limited the Golden Knights’ shot attempts and chances and relied on Anton Khudobin to stay sturdy early, which he did.
As the second period rolled along, the Stars began to pick up steam. Unlike in Game 2 where they held off Vegas in the first but didn’t take a swing in the second, Dallas was quick on the puck and generating chances in the middle frame. Robin Lehner came up with 13 saves in the period and had a clean sheet until 6’7, 255 lb. Jamie Oleksiak found the puck at center ice and scored with a nice move on a breakaway to give the Stars a 1-0 lead.
It was a unique sight to watch the Stars’ biggest player score the opening goal of the game on the rush, but Oleksiak made sure to capitalize on his chance and come up big when the opportunity was presented. As a result, Dallas took a 1-0 lead into the locker room.
"“That’s playoff hockey. A lot of unexpected things happen. I think that was a good one for the fans and it was textbook for us. Bend, not break. Dobby was huge for us and Rads had a big goal at the end. It was a good team effort overall.” – Jamie Oleksiak following Game 3"
The third period brought a heightened sense of emotion and intensity for Vegas as they put 18 shots on goal and owned a 17-5 advantage in scoring chances. They were rewarded with back-to-back penalties and a 5-on-3 that resulted in a power-play goal by Shea Theodore.
But that’s when the next big player stepped up. Less than four minutes after the tying goal, Jamie Benn found himself in alone with Robin Lehner and made a crafty move to open up Lehner and score on the open five-hole.
Benn ended the night with a goal and an assist, as well as six shots on goal and five hits after reuniting with Radulov and Tyler Seguin on the top line. But perhaps it was his emotional engagement and physicality in the first few shifts of the game that helped set the Dallas Stars up for success, just as it did during many times in the regular season and throughout this postseason run.
“Our team feeds off of Jamie Benn,” Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness said. “It’s why he’s our captain and why he’s our leader. You come to the rink this morning and you could see the determination in his eyes.”
"“It’s inspirational to watch him play on the ice and when he’s playing that hard and that heavy, he is one tough son of a gun to play against and the guys feed off of him as you see. Give Jamie a lot of credit.” – Bowness on Jamie Benn’s play"
Bowness also mentioned that he had challenged the veterans of the team to step up and make a significant impact prior to Game 3. And as we saw throughout the game, it was a challenge that they accepted.
“When you challenge your veterans, you hope they respond,” Bowness said. “Someone’s gotta take it and run, and Jamie Benn took the ball tonight, ran with it, and got everyone going.”
And when an Alex Tuch shot deflected off of Mark Stone and into the net to tie the game once again, the Stars didn’t panic. When they challenged for goaltender interference on Stone and lost, they didn’t panic. And when they were put back on the penalty kill for that lost challenge in a 2-2 game, they didn’t panic.
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Instead, Anton Khudobin came to the rescue and made some of his biggest saves of the playoffs. That included two sprawling saves in the crease, robbing both Alex Tuch with his left pad and Reilly Smith with the right in a matter of a few seconds.
Those saves turned into a 38-40 night for the Stars’ starter as he kept Dallas steady and afloat in big moments during the game and slammed the door down the stretch while the Stars survived long enough to force overtime.
“We don’t get anywhere without Dobby tonight,” Benn said. “Unreal performance and he made a lot of big saves when we needed it.”
“We’re not in overtime without him,” Bowness added. “Again, we shot ourselves in the foot. We had two great periods and then, all of a sudden, we’re taking back-to-back penalties and giving those guys life. They took advantage of it and we got on our heels a little bit. And when you get on your heels a little bit, we talk a lot about bending and not breaking.
“A big part of that is your goaltender. He made some huge saves, especially on the penalty kill after we challenged. Give him a lot of credit for that win tonight. We don’t win without his play.”
And after clawing their way into overtime and staring down a potential 2-1 series lead or deficit, the Dallas Stars met the challenge head-on and turned it into another franchise playoff record with Radulov’s quick goal.
“Let’s go for it,” Bowness said when asked about his message for the team in overtime. “It’s one shot either way. We’re not going to sit back and we’re going to go for it. That’s the message. Don’t sit back, attack. We’re at our best when we initiate and we’re skating and we’re going north. That’s the message, let’s go for it.”
Just like that, the Stars’ resiliency was in the spotlight once again and it turned into another big playoff win based in proper effort and execution.
Pucks and Pitchforks
It’s becoming a common theme for the Dallas Stars to bounce back from flat losses and seize the moment when it presents itself. They are 5-1 in games following a loss and 3-0 in overtime since the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs began. Their biggest players continue stepping up in big moments, and every member is pulling their weight and making an impact.
As a result, the Stars seem to be building momentum and confidence at the most important time of the year. They continue finding ways to win big games, whether that’s leaning heavily on Khudobin for a memorable night, receiving an energy boost from their top players, or having an unlikely hero save the day with an impressive performance.
They aren’t backing down from any challenge thrown at them. When the opponent applies pressure, they bend but don’t break. Whether it’s scoring the winning goal in Game 2 and the tying goal in Game 4, each coming in the final 40 seconds of regulation in the first round against Calgary, coming up with an era-altering Game 7 victory against Colorado in overtime, or receiving heroic effort after heroic effort in a wild Game 3 against the Golden Knights, this Stars team is proving their playoff worthiness.
It’s all combined to give Dallas a 2-1 series lead in the Western Conference Final and has them on the brink of putting Vegas on the ropes. And while the focus continues to be on not getting too high or too low and staying in the moment, the Dallas Stars believe their best is yet to come on the biggest stage in the past 12 years for the franchise.
“Game 2 probably wasn’t our best performance,” Benn said following Game 3. “As a team, we wanted to come out and play a little better. I think we still can play better. Give Vegas a lot of credit. They’re a tough team to play against. We found a way to get it done.”
We’ll see what new ways the Stars can find to battle adversity in the games ahead.