Sunbelt Stanley: Western Conference Final Preview
The best teams in the west face off against each other
We're down to just two teams left in the Western Conference, and they were two of the best teams in the regular season. The Vegas Golden Knights were the top seed after their 111 points season while the Dallas Stars finished second in the Central Division with 108 points. Both teams were tested in the first two rounds as Vegas went six game against the best duo in hockey (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl). The Stars had to deal with a pesky Seattle Kraken team that pushed them to seven games.
Unlike the Eastern Conference Final, this one should have plenty of offensive firepower. Jack Eichel is the offensive force the Golden Knights had hoped he would be when they dealt for him a couple of seasons ago. For Dallas, Joe Pavelski was knocked out with a high hit in their first round series against Minnesota, but returned against Seattle with a vengeance, potting 8 goals in 7 games.
For a more in depth look at the series be sure to check out our friends at Defending Big D and Knights on Ice. Let's take a look at how the two teams match up.
Vegas Golden Knights Lines:
Ivan Barbashev - Jack Eichel - Jonathan Marchessault
Brett Howden - Chandler Stephenson - Mark Stone
Reilly Smith - William Karlsson - Nicolas Roy
Will Carrier - Teddy Blueger - Keegan Kolesar
Alex Martinez - Alex Pietrangelo
Brayden McNabb - Shea Theodore
Nicolas Hague - Zach Whitecloud
Dallas Stars Lines:
Jason Robertson - Roope Hintz - Joe Pavelski
Mason Marchment - Max Domi - Tyler Seguin
Jamie Benn - Wyatt Johnston - Evgenii Dadonov
Joel Kiviranta - Radek Faska - Luke Glendening
Ryan Suter - Miro Heiskanen
Esa Lindell - Colin Miller
Thomas Harley - Joel Henley
The Lightning and the Vegas Golden Knights have never met in the playoffs despite being two of the better teams in the league since the inception of the team in Vegas. They did come close twice, though. In 2018 the Golden Knights made it to the Stanley Cup Final in their first year, but the Lightning fell a game short in the Eastern Conference Final against the Washington Capitals. In 2020 it was Vegas that was stopped in the Conference Final against Dallas.
As for the Stars, they did meet up with the Lightning in the 2020 Bubble Cup Final where it produced one of the greatest moment in Lightning franchise history:
Oh yeah, and the Lightning won the Stanley Cup that year as well.
In the regular season the Lightning are 3-4-0-3 against the Golden Knights all time and 25-23-3-5 against the Dallas Stars franchise (including that weird 2020-21 season where they were in the same division).
Scott Wedgewood never technically played a game for the Tampa Bay Lightning, but he did get to raise the Stanley Cup with them in 2020 as he was part of the taxi squad in the bubble.
There are a few more familiar faces on the Golden Knights. Former Bolts first round pick Brett Howden has found a home on the Vegas second line after his stint with the Rangers. He has 5 points (2 goals, 3 assists) in 11 games for the Golden Knights this postseason.
Jonathan Marchessault, aka the one that got away, is up to his usual antics with 10 points (5 goals, 5 assists) in 11 games and a hat trick. During the regular season he scored 28 goals in 76 games, the 5th time in his career he's topped the 25 goal mark.
Brought into the Lightning organization in a March 2014 trade with Columbus, Marchessault played well in Syracuse and showed promise in a 56 game stint with the Bolts in 2015-16 where he put up 18 points (7 goals, 11 assists) in limited ice time. The Lightning offered him a two-year, two-way deal the next offseason, but he ended up choosing a similar deal with the Florida Panthers because the Cats could offer him something the Lightning couldn't - more playing time.
He exploded with 30 goals the next season and was rewarded by being left unprotected in the expansion draft (gotta protect Alex Petrovic and Mark Pysyk when have the chance). Vegas gladly took him and he's excelled in the desert ever since.
Strengths and Weaknesses
It's going to be the surprisingly potent Dallas offense against the stingy Vegas defense. Vegas has allowed a total of 15 5v5 goals throughout the playoffs so far, by far the lowest amount of the remaining teams (Carolina is next with 21). Meanwhile, Dallas has potted 29 5v5 goals through 13 games, trailing only Vegas among the four teams still playing.
When you add in the special teams goals, Dallas tops the league with 47 (Vegas has 41). Dallas has rode the success of their top line with Roope Hintz accounting for 9 goals (2 power play goals) and the ageless master of the deflection, Joe Pavelski, picking up 8 goals (3 power play goals). Jason Robertson has been the set-up guy as his 10 assists is tied with Hintz for the team lead.
They have received scoring from all four lines, with every forward recording at least one goal and depth scorers like Mason Marchment (4 goals) and Evgenii Dadonov (4 goals) finding the back of the net. Youngster Wyatt Johnston hasn't been overwhelmed by the bright lights as the 20-year-old has 4 goals as well, including the Game 7 winner against Seattle:
The Vegas penalty killing unit is probably happy to have Connor McDavid and his Edmonton teammates in their rearview mirror as the Oilers converted 39.1% of their power plays in the series. That being said, Dallas hasn't been too shabby with the extra skater, converting 31.7% of their power plays through the first two rounds.
Goaltending will be an interesting factor in this series. On paper, Jake Oettinger should be the favorite as he's put together a better resumé than journeyman Aiden Hill. Yet, in the postseason Hill has been sensational with a 5.72 GSAx, .934 Save% and 2.19 GAA since taking over after Laurent Brossoit was injured. Meanwhile Oettinger has been solid when the Stars have needed him to be, but has also been chased from the net twice in the last round against the Seattle Kraken.
Vegas has done a much better job of spreading out their goal scoring. While Jack Eichel is enjoying his first postseason sojourn with 6 goals and 8 assists in 11 games, the Golden Knights have four other players with at least 5 goals. Their ability to split their best players (Eichel and Mark Stone) onto separate lines has been a key to their success.
For Dallas the big questions will be if Pavelski can keep up his torrid scoring rate, and if he can't, can Robertson start finding the back of the net again.
On the Vegas side, can they kill penalties and keep the pressure off of Hill.
Vegas Golden Knights (P1) vs. Dallas Stars (C2)
Friday May 19 8:30 p.m. ESPN, SN, CBC, TVAS
Sunday May 21 3:00 p.m. ABC, SN, CBC, TVAS
Tuesday May 23 8:00 p.m.; ESPN, SN, CBC, TVAS
Thursday May 25 8:00 p.m.; ESPN, SN, CBC, TVAS
*Saturday May 27 8:00 p.m.; ABC, SN, CBC, TVAS
*Monday May 29 8:00 p.m.; ESPN, SN, CBC, TVAS
*Wednesday May 31 9:00 p.m.; ESPN, SN, CBC, TVAS