Best in the West? Vegas finally meets its match vs. Dallas

EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — After they moved on to the Western Conference final, the Dallas Stars gathered around televisions to see who they’d face next.

They watched the Vegas Golden Knights tilt the ice against the overmatched Vancouver Canucks and eventually crack hot goaltender Thatcher Demko to win that Game 7.

“They’re big, they’re heavy, they’re experienced, they’re fast,” Stars coach Rick Bowness said. “This is a whole new challenge for us.”

And the Stars are a whole new challenge for the Golden Knights, who finally draw an opponent that doesn’t have to rope-a-dope and can actually punch them back. Two of the top teams in the West on Sunday start a conference final that should be competitive, full of goals and yet still feature some great goaltending.

“Every round you get a better version of the teams you just went through,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. “Dallas is going to be a better version of Vancouver. I think they provide the same type of defensive structure and problems that Vancouver gives you, but they’re probably a little deeper up front and a little deeper on the back end with some star power.”

Dallas defenseman Miro Heiskanen is the highest-scoring player left in the playoffs with 21 points in 16 games, and Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore isn’t far behind with 16 in 15. The Stars also have talent up front in captain Jamie Benn, center Tyler Seguin and graybeard Joe Pavelski to matchup up with the Golden Knights’ talented forwards led by Mark Stone.

Bowness accepted Vegas being the favorite in the series as the West’s No. 1 seed and with a core that went to the Stanley Cup Final two years ago. But after beating the Colorado Avalanche in the second round, the Stars aren’t conceding much else to the Golden Knights.

“We know what we’re capable of if we play the right way,” defenseman Andrej Sekera said. “We have a good chance to win any game.”

Goaltending plays a huge part in each team’s belief that it can win the Cup. Robin Lehner shut out the Canucks in all three of his starts for Vegas last round, and journeyman Anton Khudobin has been solid since stepping in for injured Stars starter Ben Bishop.

“He’s been great in the playoffs and during the season, always gives us a chance to win the game,” Dallas defenseman Esa Lindell said. “He’s been a huge part of the team and we trust him, for sure.”

Lehner has earned enough of DeBoer’s trust to make him the No. 1 goalie over Marc-Andre Fleury, who backstopped the Golden Knights to the 2018 final and has three Cup rings from his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins — one from 2016 against DeBoer’s San Jose Sharks. Lehner has a 1.99 goals-against average and .918 save percentage in the playoffs.

Yet he’s just one piece of the Golden Knights’ success, which is predicated on contributions up and down the lineup. Aside from frustration from not scoring on Demko, Vegas has been in control since the NHL restarted and will try to keep that up with a spot in the final on the line.

“If you watch us play, you see what we are,” DeBoer said. “I don’t think there’s any secrets there. We rely on four lines and depth and scoring throughout the lineup. We try and play a pressure game in all three zones, great goaltending and a team that I think is going to be a real tough out.”

The Stars know that, so they’re trying to exploit one potential advantage they have. Pavelski is in his first season with Dallas after playing four under DeBoer in San Jose, and that knowledge could be power. Bowness has already talked to Pavelski a couple of times about DeBoer’s system in the hopes of gaining an edge.

“We have the luxury of video, to take our time, break it down, and we’ll talk to Pav about tying it together,” Bowness said. “We know what we’re up against, Pete’s a great coach and he has a good team to coach and has them playing great hockey. It helps having input from Pavs, as well.”

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