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Stars and Cup champion Golden Knights meet much earlier in NHL playoffs this time

DALLAS (AP) — The Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights are meeting much earlier in the NHL playoffs this time.

Reigning Stanley Cup champion Vegas opens defense of its title as a No. 8 seed in a first-round series that opens Monday night in Dallas, where the Knights last year wrapped up the Western Conference final with a Game 6 victory.

“Probably a better team than where they finished,” Stars forward Tyler Seguin said. “It’s a great test for us. When you have a goal of going all the way, a lot of times you’ve got to get through the defending champs.”

Seguin is the only Stars player with a Cup title, but that was 13 years ago as a 19-year-old rookie with Boston. He made the Stanley Cup Final with Dallas in 2020, after another Western Conference final against Vegas.

The Stars won 17 of their last 21 games to get the top seed in the West. They set a franchise record with an NHL-high eight 20-goal scorers, and All-Star goalie Jake Oettinger has allowed two goals or fewer in 10 of his past 11 starts.

“We've played our best hockey here down the stretch,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said.

Vegas won all three regular-season meetings, the last on Dec. 9. There was a shootout and overtime game before 12 different Knights had points in a 6-1 win in Dallas.

The Knights were 13-12-2 while finishing the regular season without captain Mark Stone (lacerated spleen), and were also at times without defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, Chandler Stephenson and William Carrier. All were back at practice before the first-round series.

“They're a big part of our team," Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “We've managed to persevere in terms of getting to our first goal, which was to make the playoffs.”

Vegas last year had home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, including the Stanley Cup Final when beating Florida in five games. To get back, they will have to do it as a No. 8 seed, as the Panthers did last year.

“We understand as soon as you get in, anything can happen,” said Jack Eichel, whose 68 points were second on the team to Jonathan Marchessault’s 69. “What you do here on out the next two months, that’s the most important thing.”

ANY CARRYOVER?

Stars captain Jamie Benn missed Games 4 and 5 of last year's West final after being suspended for an ugly hit on Stone that led to a game misconduct less than two minutes into Game 3. The captains collided and, after Stone fell to the ice, Benn lunged forward with both hands on his stick and made contact near Stone’s neck.

“It’s a different year. I think that was addressed pretty quick in the regular season,” Dallas forward Joe Pavelski said, when asked about any carryover effect into this series. “It’s all about winning right now. And that’s kind of what we’re focused on.”

A week into this regular season, Dallas and Vegas traded goals and plenty of punches in a period when both teams received two fighting majors — the first of those being Benn and Vegas defenseman Nicholas Hague.

IN NET

Oettinger, who two years ago had 64 saves in a Game 7 first-round loss at Calgary, has an NHL-high 24 wins since Jan. 1.

Aiden Hill was spectacular for the Knights last postseason after Laurent Brossoit was injured in the second round. Hill was 11-4 with a .932 save percentage in the playoffs, but has dealt with injuries and inconsistent play this season.

Hill split starts down the stretch with Logan Thompson, who has a .926 save percentage and 2.14 goals-against average in his past 11 games but lacks playoff experience. Cassidy said Sunday that he knows who will start Game 1, but didn't reveal his choice.

NO STRANGERS

Vegas is making its sixth postseason appearance in seven seasons as a franchise, and DeBoer has had a part in all of them. DeBoer was San Jose's coach against the Knights in their first two playoffs in 2018 and 2019 and coached them in the 2020 and 2021 postseasons before going to Dallas.

Pavelski, whose 73 playoff goals are the most for an American-born player, is facing Vegas in the playoffs for the fifth time, for the third time in Dallas after twice with DeBoer in San Jose.

CONSPIRACY TALK

Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon has heard the speculation from the outside about potential salary cap manipulation after Stone was declared cleared to return to practice just in time for the playoffs.

Stone's salary didn't count toward the NHL's cap while on long-term injured reserve after getting hurt Feb. 20, allowing Vegas to be aggressive at the trade deadline and add three players. There is no cap for the playoffs, and Stone returned to full-contact practice Saturday.

He also returned just before last year’s playoff run after back surgery during that season.

McCrimmon said the NHL is fully involved in such cases, with access to all medical information and test results, and the league's chief medical director speaking with team doctors.

“They have access to all that information. That’s what keeps the system legitimate,” McCrimmon said. "So I don’t know that maybe fans or media understand the degree to which these injuries are scrutinized.”

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AP Sports Writer Mark Anderson in Las Vegas contributed to this story.

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AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://apnews.com/hub/nhl

Stephen Hawkins, The Associated Press