Stars dealt bad hand by playing Vegas

By David Mullen

If the Dallas Stars, the team with the best regular season record in the Western Conference and the second-best record in the entire NHL, don’t advance into the second round of the NHL Western Conference playoffs, they will have an unlikely team to blame.

Against the Golden Knights (pictured above), the Stars were 0-3.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Anaheim Ducks. 

It was a miserable season in Anaheim. Their entire year was like a seven-month ride on Disneyland’s frightening Incredicoaster. The Ducks finished 14th out of the 16 teams in the Western Conference with a record of 27-50-5, a goal differential of -91 and  a meager total of 59 points. They were out of any playoff consideration before the New Year’s Eve fireworks went off at Main Street U.S.A.

Yet somehow, while Stars fans were asleep on the evening of April 18, the Ducks beat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-1 in the league’s final regular season game and shook up the Western Conference playoff structure. Instead of the Stars playing Anaheim’s neighbors to the north — the Los Angeles Kings — the defending NHL champions Vegas dropped to the eight seed and prepared for a series with Dallas.

In three regular season games against the Kings, the Stars were 3-0, never allowed more than one goal and outscored Los Angeles 13-3. Against the Golden Knights, the Stars were 0-3, never scored more than two goals and were outscored a collective 11-4. 

Despite a brief history between the two clubs, the Stars, a team with a winning tradition, have lost 11 regular season games against the Golden Knights with three wins. Last season, as Vegas went on to win the Stanley Cup Finals, Vegas eliminated the Stars in the Western Conference Finals 4 games to 2. Even though the Stars are the No. 1 seed, they will have to overcome longer odds in Las Vegas then they would have facing Los Angeles in the first round of the playoffs.

While Vegas was “securing” the final playoff spot with a loss to the ugly Ducks as the Kings garnered a point against the last place Chicago Blackhawks to secure the seventh seed, the Golden Knights were getting healthy. 

Thanks to some creative salary cap maneuvering, Vegas’ star player Mark Stone, out with a lacerated spleen and relegated to the NHL’s long-term injured reserve (LTIR), was activated to return to the playoffs and join trade deadline acquisitions defenseman Noah Hanifin and center Tomas Hertl (another LTIR activation). The Golden Knights were probably over the salary cap with the LTIR activation of Stone and Hertl, but the NHL didn’t seem to notice.

The Golden Knights has a complete roster for the playoffs. This was not the team that finished eighth in the Western Conference in the regular season. 

This looks more like the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Stone, the Golden Knights captain, scored the first goal less than two minutes into Game One of the first round series against the Stars and ignited an early ambush of Dallas goalie Jake Oettinger, leading to a 4-3 Vegas win on April 22.

The first game between the Stars and Golden Knights was an indication of just how difficult a run to the Stanley Cup Finals can be. The Stars came out a bit lethargic before ramping things up on the ice but spotting Vegas two early goals proved too much to overcome.

The Stars only need to look over at their American Airlines Center roommates, the Mavericks, to see how a series can change from game to game. After a thrashing by the Los Angeles Clippers in Game One of the NBA Western Conference first round playoffs, the Mavs looked like a totally different team and played with physicality missing from the series start. The aggressiveness led to a Game Two 96-93 Mavericks win on April 23 and a swing of the home court advantage — and the momentum — in the Mavericks favor.  

The NHL playoffs are a grind. No more shootouts to break ties. Games are decided by a sudden death format. No luxury of taking a game off because of an injury. 

Players play with pain. And as is the Stanley Cup tradition, no more razors. Players won’t shave until their team has been eliminated. Gillette is a corporate sponsor of Major League Soccer, not the NHL. 

The Stars are still a better team than the Golden Knights. They are deeper on offense, with four lines capable of scoring every time they hit the ice. Former Vegas head coach and current Dallas head coach Peter DeBoer knows the Golden Knights as well as any opposing coach. But Oettinger must play to his utmost ability and depend on some back line help from a defense that occasionally gets caught out of position. The series seems destined for seven games.    

Both the Dallas Stars and the Dallas Mavericks are in the playoffs. And both should be playing teams from Los Angeles. Instead, the Stars face what could be their toughest Western Conference foe in the defending Stanley Cup Champion Vegas Golden Knights, thanks to an unexpected Game 82 victory by the no longer mighty Anaheim Ducks.