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Dallas’ Run To The Conference Finals Painful Reminder For Vegas Fans

Photo Credit: Ken Boehlke, SinBin.vegas

Growing up in Boston I witnessed my share of shortened seasons. Historically, after a Bruins postseason exit, my father would begin rooting for the team that eliminated them from the playoffs. It was his way of coping after another failed season by the B’s. On May 5th, after the Golden Knights were eliminated I gave my son the same advice. Now, I’m dealing with a hockey-crazed eight-year-old breaking curfew in hopes that the Dallas Stars capture a Stanley Cup trophy of their own.

You get both previous Stanley Cup champions [in Vegas and Colorado]. What a gauntlet. I just couldn’t be prouder of our group… we’ve got a mix of older and younger guys, but they were just fantastic. Just hard to believe with a gauntlet like that, that you’re only halfway there. But we’re going to enjoy and need the time off here, and get ready for the next round. -Pete DeBoer, DAL coach

However, watching Dallas’ run to the Western Conference finals is truly bittersweet. Most will agree, had Vegas beaten the number one seed in Game 7, they would be looking at their fifth conference finals appearance. After the Avalanche lost a top player to another postseason distraction, the Golden Knights probably would have found their way back to the league semifinals like the Stars have.

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Cassidy’s Neutral Zone Adjustment Helped VGK Win Game 6, And Maybe Game 7 Too

Photo Credit: Ken Boehlke, SinBin.vegas

In most playoff series the matchup of the coaches gets overblown. Talk of adjustments, line changes, goalie decisions, motivational tactics, and so much more find their way into the ether when in reality, the better hockey team typically wins despite all of it.

When it comes to the Golden Knights and Stars first round series headed to a 7th and final game, there’s no doubt the coaching has had an impact. Bruce Cassidy’s box-and-one defending style helped Vegas grab a pair of leads and hold onto them to take control of the series. Then, Pete DeBoer’s squad adjusted their exits by using the walls more to help his defensemen get the puck out before VGK’s big bruising forecheck got into the picture.

DeBoer also deserves credit for advising his forwards to leak out of the zone even earlier than they are used to catch a Vegas defense that often overloads a side of the ice against transition chances. Dallas has hit multiple stretch passes that have sent players in on clean breakaways. (Fortunately for Vegas their goalies have shut down most of them.)

As the tide of the series shifted back from Vegas to Dallas, Cassidy had to find a way to speed his team up. The Stars were making the Golden Knights look old and stodgy by limiting their ability to carry the puck through the center of the ice. In Game 6, Cassidy presented another option to his team, it unlocked the neutral zone, and made Vegas look fast again.

They’ve done a really good job at taking away the middle of the ice. We pride ourselves in that too. So, there’s room outside. So that’s what we did. We said, ok we’ve got to get the puck outside and take the ice that’s there. You’re probably not making a lot of east-west plays in the he neutral zone and we didn’t. We took what was there for the most part. -Cassidy

Here are a couple of quick examples of exactly what he’s talking about.

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Same Teams, Different Depth

The names, logos, and jerseys of the team are the same, but if the Golden Knights want to defeat the Dallas Stars once again in the postseason this year they are going to have to do it against a much different team.

Of course, both Vegas and Dallas have many of the same pivotal pieces to the lineup. From Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, and Alex Pietrangelo in gold to Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, and Miro Heiskanen in green the guys that drive the bus remain. As you peer down each lineup though, there are significant differences, that will likely determine the outcome of the series.

Vegas showed they were a deeper team than everybody in the league last year. Everyone they went through I thought their depth decided the series. You could point to a technical thing here or a technical thing there but that’s the reality. And the times I’ve lost in the Conference Final, every time it’s been to a deeper team. I think we’ve rectified that and we’re on a much more level playing field this year. -Pete DeBoer, DAL head coach

Dallas has taken strides in bolstering their lineup both by adding veterans via trade and free agency and by getting much larger contributions from younger players in the lineup.

Photo Credit: Ken Boehlke, SinBin.vegas

At the trade deadline, GM Jim Nill acquired Chris Tanev from the Calgary Flames which has gone a long way to balancing a defense unit that struggled with the powerful Golden Knights a year ago. Tanev slots in on the 2nd pair with fellow defense-first defenseman Esa Lindell to make as strong a pair defensively as you’ll find in the NHL. Couple that with 22-year-old Thomas Harley advancing his role from a 15-minute-a-night sheltered defenseman to a 22-minute per-night bonafide 1B to Heiskanen and the Stars look much more well-rounded on the back end. Still though, admittedly, not quite to the level of their opponents in this series.

I don’t think anyone can compete with Vegas’ defense, depth-wise. That’s something pretty special. But everybody has their strengths and weaknesses and we might have better depth other places. -DeBoer, DAL coach

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Battle Of Depth Tilting Towards Dallas

(Photo Credit: Ken Boehlke, SinBin.vegas)

For the first 10+ games of this playoff run one of the most consistent parts of the Golden Knights’ game has been their 4th line. No matter what has been going on with the group ahead of them, the grinders on the 4th line have gotten the job done night in and night out.

The Western Conference Final started out that way as Teddy Blueger came up with the go-ahead goal in the 3rd period. In Game 2 the 4th line was the only group that had any consistent success at 5-on-5, out-attempting the Stars 10-3, out-chancing them 3-0, and managing multiple high-danger chances without allowing one.

From there though, and especially in the past two games, it’s headed in the wrong direction for the depth players in gold.

Our 4th line didn’t do what it typically does in terms of puck possession in the O-Zone and then they were forced to play and got outworked in the D-Zone. So that’s something I expect to change. Whether Howden’s on that line, Blueger, or Nic Roy, they have to do a better job against their 4th line. Give credit to that line for Dallas, they outplayed our guys. -Cassidy

The group of Radek Faksa, Fredrik Olafsson, and Luke Glendening dominated the Golden Knights’ 4th line in Game 5 including the massive goal that tied the game. That group posted a 92% expected goals share against the VGK 4th line and did not allow William Carrier, Keegan Kolesar, and Brett Howden anything near the front of the net.

In many ways, it set the tone for the rest of the team.

That was one part of the game where that slot battle comes into play and that urgency tilts the game in their favor. When our 4th line is going well like that, our game goes better. They did some good things but they have to get back to who they are and their identity. -Cassidy

Vegas had troubles in many areas of the ice last night, including giving the puck away 24 times, but the largest area of concern is directly in front of the net. After being basically even through two games, the Golden Knights now trail 63-48 in high-danger chances in the series. Even as good as Adin Hill has been, the Stars have scored five goals from high-danger chances in the past two games, they had just three in the first three.

That’s our group, next man up. We got contributions from everyone. I mean that’s a gutsy win being down a couple of guys and coming in here. I like our group and I wouldn’t bet against them. -Pete DeBoer

To turn this around and secure that final win, the Golden Knights must get back to getting contributions up and down the lineup. Vegas’ depth has made line matching difficult for opposing coaches, especially in road games. With Game 6 taking place at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Vegas is going to need everyone to get back to playing the way they were.

Dallas Brought Desperation And Tactical Adjustments To Game 4, VGK’s Turn To Counter

(Photo Credit: Ken Boehlke, SinBin.vegas)

The Golden Knights have the Stars on the brink. With their backs against the wall, Vegas knew they’d get everything Dallas had left in the tank in Game 4. That of course comes with the cliches of desperation, higher levels of intensity, and in this particular series, trying to keep the season alive long enough to get Jamie Benn back from suspension.

Desperation was the highest it’s been. At home, you know what’s on the line, what the stakes are. Everyone came to play and we’re going to need that same desperation through these next three games. -Jason Robertson

What Game 4 also came with was a few new players in the Dallas lineup, a brand new set of lines through the bottom-nine, and a couple of tactical tweaks.

We felt they were forechecking the puck side very heavily and trying to outnumber us on that side. So that took away a little but of our ability to break out on the strong side. When we did we were good, and we did on the first goal by Karlsson. They were on us quicker after that. So we tried to change sides with some rims and we tried to balance our breakouts but that’s one area I noticed for sure they were more content to forecheck us and it worked for them. -Cassidy

As Cassidy mentioned, one of the first times the Stars tried to aggressively attack the strong side of Vegas’ breakout, the Golden Knights beat it and ended up scoring a goal. Watch.

As you can see, all five Stars players are on one side of the ice. Reilly Smith makes an excellent play along the boards to eliminate the pinching Ryan Suter and the Golden Knights are off to the races.

Of course, there’s a lot more to do on this play to end up putting it into the back of the net (including getting a lot of help from Suter’s peculiar route back into his own zone), but it all started with a clean breakout against a numbers disadvantage along the wall.

That adjustment would pay off for the Stars though. Here’s the very next time they got the puck in deep.

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Does Dallas Have Enough Fight Left To Force A Game 5?

(Photo Credit: Ken Boehlke, SinBin.vegas)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. No team in NHL history has come back from an 0-3 conference finals deficit. The downward-spiraling Dallas Stars will try and begin a historic run tonight with a win in Game 4. Win or lose, in all likelihood the Golden Knights have done enough to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. It’s just a matter of when.

So, what should the Golden Knights expect from a Stars team that the record books have shown they have nothing to play for?

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. That’s the approach we’re going to take with the rest of the series. We’re not going to get back in the series tomorrow night, but we’ll take a bite and see what happens. – Pete DeBoer, DAL coach

As former NHL goaltender Mike McKenna reminds us weekly; hockey players have a lot of pride. So, of course the Stars have something to play for but it’s unlikely to be for the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl. It’s hard to believe Dallas’ locker room, coaching staff and fanbase have any confidence in a four-game win streak but a victory in Game 4 would give them some sense of false hope. Even if Dallas can return home for a desperate Game 6, history is still heavily against them.

Assuming Vegas comes out as sharp as they have all series, the home team will be up against it from the opening puck drop. The Golden Knights will be hungry to sweep the series and earn as much rest as the Eastern Conference champions Florida Panthers. Dallas will be down two impact forwards but it’s not the focus around the locker room. The Stars are taking a simple approach into tomorrow’s elimination game.

We’re just worried about trying to get our first win in this series. That’s all that matters. We’re going to have to play desperate hockey now. Our lives are at stake here and I’m looking forward to it. This group has answered when our backs are against the wall. We’re going to find a way to muster up a good 60 minutes and find a way to beat a really good team. We’re going to have a hungry team tomorrow – Max Domi, DAL forward

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The Golden Knights Forecheck Went After Dallas In Game 1 And They’re Coming Again In Game 2

(Photo Credit: Ken Boehlke, SinBin.vegas)

In Game 1, the game plan for the Golden Knights was simple, literally the age old hockey cliche.

Get it in deep.

From the very first shift of the game the Golden Knights consistently sent puck after puck after puck deep into the Dallas zone and then hounded their defensemen until they’d unwillingly give it back.

Vegas’ forecheck was buzzing from puck drop to the final shift a few minutes into overtime. It’s become the hallmark of the Golden Knights’ offensive system, and the head coach was not shy in making a declaration about it moving forward in the series.

That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to do it Sunday, so you can put that in print or whatever it is these days. That’s our game and we’re not trying to hide from it. -Bruce Cassidy

Just as it won’t be news to the Stars on Sunday, Vegas’ forecheck didn’t surprise Dallas in Game 1. They knew it was coming, they knew how effective it can be, they just didn’t handle it well at all.

Part of it was execution on us and part of it was them coming at us hard early. You’ve got to give them credit, they were ready to play and they played well. -Pete DeBoer

The dominance of the forecheck was why the ice was tilted so heavily in Vegas’ favor most of the night. The Golden Knights generated 11 takeaways as they denied every exit route out of the Stars end. It looked like they came into the game knowing exactly what Dallas was going to do with the puck, and that’s because, they did.

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