In yet another big game, the Dallas Stars found yet another way to win. Anton Khudobin stole the show in Game 4 against the Vegas Golden Knights and helped push the Stars within one win of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. Their confidence seems to be at an all-time high, while the focus is remaining steady and clear.
When asked about why Anton Khudobin’s competitiveness has led to so much success in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs following Game 4 on Saturday, Dallas Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness simply smiled.
“You just answered your own question,” Bowness said with a chuckle. “That’s what he is. He’s a fighter, he’s a battler, he’s a competitive guy. We’ve seen this for two years now, but that’s what he is. He’s going to battle right ’til the end.
“That’s why the guys love playing in front of him. When he was reading the play like he was tonight, he’s making a lot of tough saves look easy. He’s keeping us in every game.”
Such was the case on Saturday night as Khudobin put on a brilliant, near-perfect showing against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final. He was sharp throughout the game, only sacrificing one goal on the power play, and bought the Stars enough time to find their footing and shift into high gear after an early push by the Golden Knights. And when Dallas had built a lead and needed the door slammed shut, Khudobin was there for a stellar finish.
As a result, the Stars found a way to wrap up a 2-1 win to push their series advantage to 3-1. They are now one win away from knocking out the Golden Knights, who entered the series as a heavy favorite, and a berth in the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.
But for this resilient and confident 2019-20 Dallas Stars team, it was just another game.
“We’re staying in the moment here as a group and taking it one game at a time,” Jamie Benn said following the win. “It wasn’t pretty tonight, but we found a way to get it done.”
It was one year ago today that the Stars opened 2019 training camp in Frisco, Texas. And in the past 366 days, the team has gone through seismic momentum shifts, navigating unexpectedly challenging lows and invigorating highs. From a 1-7-1 start, to a 14-1-1 rally, to firing head coach Jim Montgomery in December, to the flair of a Winter Classic, to an 0-4-2 losing streak that was halted by a pandemic, to spending the last seven weeks playing through the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a bubble in Edmonton, it’s been an eventful journey.
But it’s been one that has made the Stars all the more stronger, resilient, and determined along the way. That determination and resilience once again shone through on Saturday night as Dallas ‘found a way to get it done’ yet again in this best-of-seven Western Conference Final against a Stanley Cup favorite.
It started and ended in Khudobin’s crease.
After the Stars went scoreless and looked powerless in their first two power plays of the game, the Golden Knights grabbed two of their own to close out the first period. Khudobin was sharp on both, stopping six all six shots faced to close out a perfect third period at 13-13. While the Stars had been outshot and outplayed down the stretch of the opening frame, Khudobin kept them in a 0-0 deadlock going into the second.
And that’s when the Dallas Stars found their legs and began pushing back.
Alec Martinez scored the game’s first goal with a one-timer through traffic on the power play to make it 1-0. The team that scored the first goal had won each of the first three games of the series, and Vegas had talked plenty in the days prior about needing to get the first goal in an effort to get the Stars off of their game. A forceful push by Vegas seemed to be inbound.
But those plans were foiled by Joe Pavelski less than four minutes later. After outshooting the Stars 8-1 through the first few minutes, Vegas turned the puck over to Andrew Cogliano in the offensive zone. Pavelski found the loose puck in front of the net and threw a backhander towards Robin Lehner. The shot deflected off of a stick and turned into a knuckle floater of sorts as it went off-speed over Lehner’s glove and into the net to tie the game at 1-1.
“We didn’t have a lot going on,” Corey Perry said about Pavelski’s tying goal. “Our emotion was a little low and I think we only had six, seven or eight shots at that point. That’s what Joe does. He comes up big in big moments and we got a bounce. It kind of put some life into us and we started to play on our toes a little bit more and play on the offense a little bit more. That got us going.”
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And with 59 seconds to go in the period, Jamie Benn came through with another impressive goal at a big moment against Vegas. He scored on a rebound created by John Klingberg on the power play to give the Stars their first advantage of the game and first power-play goal of the series.
Benn upped his point total to four (two goals, two assists) in the first four games and continues to be a difference-maker by creating and capitalizing on big plays in his first-ever trip to the conference finals.
“He’s doing what you want your captain to do and laying it on the line every shift and leave everything out there,” Bowness said. “That’s what he’s doing and he’s a huge inspiration lift to our team. He’s playing the best hockey I’ve seen him play in my two years in Dallas. He’s the Jamie Benn that I remember coaching against when I was in Tampa.
“It’s great to see him being rewarded now that everyone is noticing the goals and the points; but man, everything he does to help us win, everything he does in the locker room, everything he does at practice and on the bench during games, we notice that.”
The Stars took a 2-1 lead into second intermission and opened the door for a curious third period. Would the Golden Knights be able to find another gear and push back to even the series? Or would the Stars use their suffocating defensive structure to close the game and take a 3-1 series lead?
As we now know, the latter once again won out thanks to a full-team effort by the Stars and nine saves by Khudobin.
“He’s been solid back there for us. He’s made big saves at crucial times and he doesn’t get fazed. He just keeps going to the next shift, he’s battling for pucks, and it’s giving everyone confidence on that bench.” – Corey Perry on Khudobin’s play
The Stars limited the Golden Knights’ chances in the third period using their sound defensive attack and pinned their opponent to the outside. When Pavelski and Jason Dickinson took tripping minors within 50 seconds of each other and left the Stars with 70 seconds of a 5-on-3 setup to kill, Dallas didn’t budge. They only allowed three shots on goal, all of which came from distance and were turned aside or smothered confidently by Khudobin.
“Pretty spectacular performances,” Benn said of Khudobin. “He’s a competitor, he comes to play every night, and once again probably kept us in that game tonight.”
Throughout the third, different Stars players stepped up to help close the game. Tyler Seguin had a big shot block late in the game. After tallying his first point of the playoffs on the Pavelski goal, Cogliano skated 2:40 on the penalty kill after three straight healthy scratches. Esa Lindell led the team in shorthanded time on ice at 6:04 and led the team with seven blocked shots. Pavelski had six hits, while Jason Dickinson logged five of his own. And when Anton Khudobin was called upon, he stepped up and kept Vegas off the scoreboard.
The Stars were clogging up shooting lanes, sacrificing the body, and keeping Vegas neutralized in the offensive zone. It was the type of full-team effort that a team hopes to get in the playoffs.
“When the game’s on the line like it was in the third, you’ve got to do whatever it takes to win,” Bowness said. “Our guys were doing that. They gutted that out, they blocked the shots, they paid the price, and we got the win.”
“It’s always awesome the way the guys are battling and blocking shots,” Khudobin added about the team in front of him. “They have bruises and bumps and they still sacrifice their bodies to block the shots.”
And as the final five minutes played out, the Stars put a final stranglehold on the game as a frustrated Golden Knights team struggled to generate any sort of attack.
It was a Dallas Stars showing that once again brimmed with confidence and proved that even when they aren’t playing at their best, they still find ways to win. That’s the mark of a confident team, and it makes them all the more dangerous going into the potential knockout game.
“We play with confidence,” Perry said. “Dobby made some big saves for us in timely situations. It’s confidence. It starts from Dobby and goes all the way out.”
And now, the focus shifts to Game 5 on Monday night. Vegas will try to avoid elimination, while the Stars will try and get back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in two decades.
“Mentally, we’re in a good spot. We didn’t come here to win one, two, or three rounds. We came here to win the Stanley Cup. The focus is entirely on that and taking the steps necessary to get the team there. We know where we are and we know we can play a little bit better than we have in this series. We came here to win the Stanley Cup, and that’s our objective.” – Rick Bowness on Stars’ mentality
This series has centered around expecting the unexpected. A Dallas power play that had rolled through the first two rounds of the playoffs all of a sudden looks subpar. As the games are getting bigger, Khudobin only seems to be getting better in his first career playoff run with a 3-1 record, .952 save percentage, and 1.64 goals-against average in the current round.
The big players on the roster are stepping up at critical moments after relatively quiet regular season performances. And while Vegas seems to have dominated in terms of possession, scoring chances, and setting the tempo in this series, it’s the Stars that now have three straight chances to punch their ticket to the Final.
But after having the same opportunity against the Colorado Avalanche and taking all three chances to capitalize, it’s on the Stars to change the narrative and get this one right on the first go around.
After not playing at their best for a full 60 minutes but receiving a heroic effort from Khudobin on Saturday, the focus is on playing better in the most important game of the franchise’s recent history and getting the job done.
“We understand where we’re at, and we haven’t done anything yet,” Pavelski said. “We’re in a position and we’re one step closer, but nothing’s been accomplished yet. We’ll just stay focused and try to play our best game of the series next time.”
That’s a great mindset to have with a trip to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final on the horizon within reach.