The Stars are in.
For the first time in 20 years, the team from the Lone Star State is heading to the Stanley Cup Final.
“Yeah, we’ve got a great team,” captain Jamie Benn said Monday night after the Stars won the Western Conference finals over the Golden Knights in five games. “Everyone’s bought into their role . . . Obviously, one of the best teams, if not the best team, I’ve played on. We just jell as a group and it’s fun in the locker room and we’re going to try and keep this thing going.”
For a while in Game 5, it looked like they wouldn’t be advancing right away. Fifteen seconds into the final frame of regulation, the Golden Knights took a 2-0 lead off a Reilly Smith goal and appeared to be in control. It was a must-win for Vegas as it trailed 3-1 in the best-of-seven.
But Dallas roared back.
With just over 10 minutes left in the third, Benn scored his eighth goal of the postseason, and then recent cult hero Joel Kiviranta tallied on the power play to tie things up. So, off to overtime the game went.
Two minutes and 15 seconds into the extra session, Vegas rookie defenseman Zach Whitecloud cleared the puck over the glass — and was sent to the box for delay of game. On the ensuing man advantage, John Klingberg fed Denis Gurianov in the right circle for a one-timer that beat Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner short-side.
“I just feel terrible for the kid, you know, it’s such a s—y penalty to begin with . . . for that type of penalty to decide a game — just doesn’t make sense to me,” said Vegas head coach Pete DeBoer. “For him, he’s got nothing to hang his head about. He played his a— off . . . he’s got nothing to be ashamed of.”
After the 3-2 win, Dallas swarmed netminder Anton Khudobin, who was not expected to be the No. 1 guy in the bubble — that was Ben Bishop, who has been unfit to play for most of the time in Edmonton. Head coach Rick Bowness has been mostly riding the NHL’s regular-season leader in save percentage (.930).
“He handles pressure very well because nothing bothers him,” said Bowness, who will be making his third Stanley Cup Final appearance in the last nine years (2011 with the Canucks’ Alain Vigneault and 2015 with the Lightning’s Jon Cooper — whom he could very well face in 2020). “He’s just one of those guys you love being around, you love playing front of. You know when the puck drops he’s going to compete . . . he’s going to give you 100 percent. He’s going to battle on every shot and you know that going into the game.”
Khudobin stopped 34 shots in the win Monday and saved 153 of the 161 shots he saw from the Golden Knights’ high-powered offense in the series. Considering the Stars are, according to Sportsnet Stats, the first team since the 1968 Blues to make the final with a negative goal differential and were dominated by the Golden Knights in pretty much every analytic category (per Natural Stat Trick), Khudobin has to be a top contender for the Conn Smythe.
“He’s just coming into his own,” said Dallas center Tyler Seguin, who played with Khudobin on the 2013 Bruins squad that went to the final and who also mentioned that analytics are “overrated” when questioned about the stats. “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 [who just so happened to win the Conn Smythe in 2011 with the Bruins] a little bit. But he’s competitive. He works hard and he’s getting the job done.”
When Dallas will hit the ice for the last round is still to be determined. The Stars have to wait for the Eastern Conference champion to be crowned; the Lightning lead 3-1 in their best-of-seven series with the Islanders. Game 5 is set for 8 p.m. ET Tuesday.
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