They did it. After managing to survive a rollercoaster of a 2019-20 campaign, the Dallas Stars rolled through the Western Conference Final and secured the fourth and final win against the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday. Next stop: the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.
One year ago today, the Dallas Stars played a preseason game against the St. Louis Blues in their first competitive action of the 2019-20 campaign.
The first morning skate of the year was held following a weekend of training camp was held, prospects were slotted throughout the lineup, and the Stars prepared for the next step separating them from a 2019-20 regular season full of expectations.
It didn’t get off to the most encouraging start. The Stars didn’t score a goal in the game, Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin each allowed one goal against while splitting time, and the preseason began with a brief hiccup as questions loomed about the team. Could they rebound from a frustrating end to their 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs run? Could the offense produce and score more consistently? Would offseason additions like Joe Pavelski, Corey Perry, and Andrej Sekera serve as the extra boost they needed?
Cautious optimism mixed with a dash of uncertainty followed the Stars into opening night on Oct. 3, 2019 against the Boston Bruins.
But 12 months later, they are the 2019-20 Western Conference champions and have punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years.
Wow, what a ride.
After seven seasons at the crafting table, Jim Nill finally created the roster that could win the West. After seven seasons with the ‘C’ on his chest, Jamie Benn stepped up and played a series-altering role against Vegas. After taking over as interim head coach in December and leading the team through ups and downs, Rick Bowness has the team four wins away from the Stanley Cup. After being doubted and counted out throughout an entire postseason run, the Stars are the last team standing in the Western Conference.
“One thing I’ve noticed in the playoffs – our team is pretty loose and talkative – since they started, you come in in the morning and Jamie isn’t very talkative. He’s very dialed in in the morning. Usually, he and I chit chat a little bit, but I know when to leave him alone. When he’s dialed in like that, you can be talking to him and he’s not even going to hear you. He’s dialed in and he’s a great leader. Everyone that goes after him during the regular season for points, points, points, he does so many things to help this team get in the playoffs and clearly he’s doing so many things to keep us moving forward. He’s a great captain, a great person, and I’m happy that he’s getting rewarded with points.” – Rick Bowness on Jamie Benn’s play
And what a crazy way to wrap it up.
After taking a commanding 3-1 series lead on Saturday night, the Stars knew that the Golden Knights would bring their best effort in Game 5. But, as they had done throughout the series and playoffs, the focus was on bending, but not breaking.
The game started with a strong push by Vegas that resulted in a Chandler Stephenson goal on the breakaway to give them the early 1-0 lead. A lot had been said during the series about Vegas being able to control a game after scoring the first goal.
That theory seemed to hold true through the second period as the Stars were once again kept off the scoreboard, though you could sense a little boost of energy and effort as the period closed out. But as the third period began, Reilly Smith put one home on the rush to give the Golden Knights a 2-0 lead. Neither team had rallied from a two-goal deficit throughout the series, so the thought of a Game 6 began looming across the hockey world.
But, as it’s done many times throughout this playoff run for the Dallas Stars, that’s when a switch flipped. After a few minutes of pushing back at Vegas and generating offensive pressure, Jamie Benn scored his third goal of the series and eighth of the postseason on the doorstep to cut the Vegas lead in half.
Less than six minutes later, the Stars earned a tripping penalty and went to the game’s biggest power play. That’s where Joel Kiviranta stepped up in another big, series-altering moment by scoring a power-play goal on a net-front scramble to tie the game at 2-2.
“We always know that it might take the whole game with us,” Tyler Seguin said. “We’re a confident group going into the third period and coming back in games. There’s no panic. There’s composure and just knowing that we’re going to get the job done. It starts with one shift at a time. We have key goals, big moments, and everything is falling in our favor right now. We gotta keep it going.”
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At that moment, the series seemed to already be over. Maybe it’s because of the dominance that the Stars had generated down the stretch, or maybe it’s because we had already seen them write this story of resilience so many times throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Either way, Dallas carried the game into overtime and scored on their first shot as Gurianov blasted home a power-play one-timer to close the game and the series. And after executing the biggest shot and goal of his young NHL career perfectly, he summed it up rather nicely in postgame.
“Feel good, especially because we won and got in the Stanley Cup Final,” Gurianov said. “[I] feel good.”
And just like that, the Dallas Stars are on their way to the Stanley Cup Final as this magical, wacky, incredible postseason run rages on.
“Unreal feeling,” John Klingberg said. “We’re one series away from the Stanley Cup. All the hard work you put down, videos, workouts, the resilience we’ve been playing with throughout the whole year and the ups and downs we’ve been going through. It’s all worth it. We’re there now and there’s one series left, and we’re not done yet.”
“Pretty crazy. It’s been a crazy year right from the start. We stuck together as a group, played some fun hockey, won some games and lost some games. We’re finding ways to win right now, and that’s all that matters.” – Jamie Benn on the 2019-20 campaign
This series win is about so much more than simply claiming a berth in the Stanley Cup Final, though. For the Dallas Stars, this is years of hard work finally being enough. Although Vegas had a 36-26 advantage in shots on goal and seemed to be the better team in terms of possession and scoring chances, the Stars’ resilience continued to shine through and get the best of their opponent at every juncture. It’s about staying determined, staying in the moment, and not letting adversity better them.
It’s about Anton Khudobin being the story of the playoffs so far, going from a 1B goaltender that had never started a game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs to an undeniable hero with an 11-6 record and the most saves of any goalie in the postseason (561). He arguably had his best series of the postseason against Vegas, posting a .950 save percentage, 1.69 goals-against average, and one shutout in the five-game set.
“He’s got the experience from seeing all of that and us being together back in [Boston]. There’s a lot to learn from that organization. They’re winners, they’ve been to the Finals so many times, and we’ve been a part of that a couple times. He’s always been that goalie in practice that you don’t love shooting on because you don’t score much. He reminds me of a guy named Tim Thomas a little bit. He’s competitive, he works hard, and he’s getting the job done.” – Tyler Seguin on Khudobin
It’s about every player, whether seasoned veteran or black ace, finding a way to step up in the biggest moments of a game. Joe Pavelski’s hat trick in Game 4 of the quarterfinals, Denis Gurianov’s four goal effort to clinch the first round series against the Calgary Flames, Joel Kiviranta’s hat trick to eliminate the Colorado Avalanche in Game 7 of round two, and Jamie Benn’s heightened sense of purpose and determination in the conference final are just some of those “seize the moment” chapters that have been written during this run.
It’s about Bowness finding a way to turn the team away from an 0-4-2 skid going into the pause to a Stanley Cup contender. He had four months to study the team after hastily taking over midseason and used that time to change up the team, change up the mindset, and put his own stamp on the club.
Through the ups and downs of this season, he’s never lost the support and dedication of the locker room. The Stars want to play for him and will do anything he asks, and that’s a special relationship for a coach to have with his players.
“Bones is a big part of this team,” Benn said following Game 5. “It’s been a crazy year for all of us, and I’m sure especially him to come in halfway through the year and jump right back into a head coaching role. It can’t be that easy, but he’s done a great job with us. He’s a coach that you want to do everything for and lay your body on the line for. He’s one of the best and I can’t say enough good things about him.”
And finally, it’s about the Dallas Stars standing up to every challenge that comes their way and finding a way to grow stronger because of it. A 1-7-1 start? Unexpectedly firing their head coach in December? The spectacle that was the 2020 Winter Classic? A six-game losing streak that propelled the Stars into a worldwide pause due to a pandemic? Restarting after four months off and trying to regroup and plan for a long playoff run in a bubble environment? It’s just another day at the office for the 2019-20 Dallas Stars.
“Belief, our depth, and the stuff we’ve gone through as a group over the years,” Seguin said when asked about the team’s resilience. “This year, there’s just been so much stuff that’s happened to us and we always seem to rise to the occasion. And because of those experiences as a group, we have that confidence, composure and ability to get the job done when we need it most.”
“It says a lot about our group,” Benn added. “Sometimes, it doesn’t always go your way in the first couple of periods. We stuck with it and once again, Dobby kept us in it as long as we needed and we found a way to get it done.”
The Dallas Stars are four wins away from lifting the Stanley Cup because of their determination. They keep finding a way to get it done in the critical moments and continue to prove doubters wrong. They are living off of their resilience and using it to take advantage of games and series. And on Monday night, that all came to a climax as they stampeded their way into the Stanley Cup Final.
“It’s a feeling you can’t describe,” Bowness said about moving on. “As we were talking about with our players last night, you only get so many cracks at going to the Stanley Cup Final and you have to take advantage of it. For me as a coach, it’s just gratifying for the players. They’ve worked so hard, they’ve come together, we’ve been resilient all year.
“I’m just very happy for our players, for our management, Tom the owner, all the fans in Dallas and the supporters of our team, I’m just thrilled for everybody. When you’re behind the bench and you see that puck go in and you know you’re going to the Stanley Cup Final, words can’t describe the emotion that comes through.”
But they haven’t reached the end of the road yet, and the Stars know that. Whether they face the Tampa Bay Lightning or New York Islanders, Dallas knows that four more wins must be earned before they can hoist the Cup. They have to turn the determination up just a little bit more as one of the biggest postseason series in franchise history comes into focus.
While they wait for their next opponent to clinch and for the Final to begin, though, take heart in the fact that the Dallas Stars are Western Conference champions. In the weirdest and most unexpected season in franchise history, the Stars have remained in the moment and capitalized when needed.
As a result, history is in the making. The opportunity to write the final chapter has arrived, and the Stars seem ready to do just that.
“We’re a very confident group that we can respond to the challenge,” Benn said. “One of the things we keep preaching to the guys, and give the players a lot of credit, is staying in the moment. Don’t worry about what’s happened before, just stay in the moment, get ready for your next shift, and let’s see if we can get things going.”
As Anton Khudobin, Jamie Benn, Joel Kiviranta, and the rest of the Dallas Stars roster would put it…
“We’re not going home.”