For the third time in four games in the Western Conference final, the Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights required overtime. Breaking away from the NHL’s other conference final, the Stars avoided a sweep by beating the Golden Knights 3-2 to shift the series back to Vegas trailing 3-1.
Joe Pavelski scored the OT game-winner for the Stars, who kept fighting after trailing 1-0 and 2-1 in Game 4. After Dallas created other dangerous looks on an overtime power play, Miro Heiskanen set up Pavelski for an emphatic goal to keep the Stars’ Stanley Cup dreams alive.
— Dallas Stars (@DallasStars) May 26, 2023
The Stars’ top line created all three goals, including two from Jason Robertson. With Jake Oettinger looking sharp for much of Game 4, the Stars' biggest guns gave them some reason to believe in an improbable comeback.
Golden Knights are on an epic 5-on-5 run
Tired of hearing about the Golden Knights’ even-strength dominance? If anything, it’s difficult to overstate just how great this team has been in the most common state of postseason games.
Before Game 4, the Golden Knights came in with just 18 goals allowed at 5-on-5. That’s easily the best number any team with at least 11 playoff wins managed in more than a decade. In fact, this year’s Florida Panthers rank second-best since 2012-13 with 25 5-on-5 goals allowed so far in their own unthinkable run.
After Game 3, it was noted that part of what makes Vegas so difficult to handle is its waves of dynamic duos (sometimes terrifying trios). That’s especially clear at even strength. Just 4:17 into Thursday’s game, William Karlsson tipped in a Reilly Smith shot for the 1-0 goal, Karlsson’s eighth tally of the postseason.
Days since Karlsson’s last goal: 0 pic.twitter.com/8xrMGJkCeF
— z - Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) May 26, 2023
As much as Karlsson’s stealth Conn Smythe argument hinges on nuanced defensive acumen, he’s also producing offensively.
Speaking of playoff production, Jack Eichel and Jonathan Marchessault keep delivering in clutch situations. It very much felt like a familiar sight: Eichel overpowering opponents with his puck protection and smarts, and making a big play behind the net. Brayden McNabb kept the play going to Marchessault, who once again got to a dangerous area to score what looked like an easy one (if you forget how difficult it is to get to those grimy areas).
nous aimons Marchessault ❤️ pic.twitter.com/1lLKQ6f2MN
— z - Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) May 26, 2023
To Oettinger’s credit, he turned aside at least two dangerous Eichel rush chances before Marchessault's marker.
Oettinger had shut down an Eichel breakaway just seconds beforehand pic.twitter.com/ip6e4IReWx
— Hockey Daily 365 l NHL Highlights (@HockeyDaily365) May 26, 2023
Following one of those high-danger stops against Eichel, the Stars were able to score their first even-strength goal versus Vegas since Heiskanen found the back of the net 2:47 into Game 2. Since that Heiskanen strike, the Stars' goals have been as follows:
Robertson PPG (second period of Game 2)
Robertson PPG (first period of Game 4)
Robertson even-strength goal (second period of Game 4)
Pavelski PPG (overtime of Game 4)
Don’t blame Robertson for Stars being down 3-1 in series
Did someone charge up the battery for “Robo?” While the Stars’ depth scoring dried up, Robertson reignited his offense against the stingy Golden Knights.
Entering the 2023 Western Conference final, Robertson produced plenty of assists (10 through two rounds), but only scored two goals in 13 games. Now he’s been scoring almost all of the Stars’ goals during this series, bumping his overall playoff tally to six.
The Stars have a lot going for them, including players in the meat of their prime years: Roope Hintz is 26, Oettinger is 24, Heiskanen is 23 and Wyatt Johnston just turned 20. Robertson may be the most important piece of that puzzle, and at 23, he’s already the type of star who can carry a team’s offense.
That nucleus could use some support, yet they don’t look far from even bigger things. Maybe they’ll somehow manage to bring this series back from the dead.
Stars need to find answers on defense
As a team, the Stars played strong, structured defense in 2022-23. We often saw the best of both worlds: remnants of the rigid Rick Bowness defensive fixation with enough spark to not be too stuck in the mud to create offense. For the most part, Peter DeBoer mixed the old with the new this season. Their Hockey Viz chart captures how well they protect their goalies:
In the playoffs, sometimes strengths get neutralized — sometimes to the point of resembling weaknesses — when you grind away against evenly matched opponents. Under that harsh playoff spotlight, the Stars’ defense too often looks like “Miro Heiskanen and a bunch of guys.”
More and more, Ryan Suter’s become a target of criticism as he’s been elevated beyond his comfort level as a top-pairing defenseman (often bumping Heiskanen to his off-side to make matters even worse).
If the Stars knew they might deal with 1-0 and 2-1 deficits in Game 4, do you think they would’ve been more willing to play someone with some skill (and a right-handed shot) like Nils Lundkvist? Management can’t be thrilled that a player they spent a first-rounder to acquire remains a healthy scratch.
This deep in the playoffs, maybe it’s too late to throw Lundkvist into the mix. The 22-year-old’s been out of the lineup since March 25. Yet, you can charge a lack of long-term (even medium-term) vision in not getting him back in game action sooner.
If Lundkvist is either a lost cause or someone who still needs to gain DeBoer’s trust, then the Stars blundered by not seeking out help on defense during the trade deadline. The additions of Max Domi and Evgenii Dadonov have exceeded expectations and at bargain prices. Yet those players may skew closer to more of a good thing than shoring up essential problems.
Beyond subtle tweaks, the Stars likely can only change so much during these playoffs. So the real key will be to make the right moves during the offseason. At the moment, Heiskanen, Suter and Esa Lindell are the only Dallas defensemen with contracts through at least the 2024-25 season. One would expect Thomas Harley to be back, as he’s a pending RFA alongside Lundkvist. Even if the Stars bring back most of their free agents (unrestricted and restricted), they still need to add some versatility to their defense corps.