The Dallas Stars were fourth in the Western Conference when the NHL season paused for the pandemic.
Dallas hovered under the radar in the post-season bubble, particularly after losing two of three round-robin games.
Given little chance against Colorado in the second round of the playoffs, the Stars pushed the Avalanche around and right back to the Rockies. Still considered the underdog against top-seeded Vegas, they have shut down the deep Golden Knights to move within a game of the Stanley Cup Final.
Seems these Stars like life in the bubble.
“As we've gone here, we've continued to find ways to win and that shows you're a good team,” Stars centre Andrew Cogliano said Sunday. “It's not going to be perfect every night, but it seems like we have a lot of guys who buy in on a nightly basis and understand what their roles are, really do what they need to do to win games.”
Anton Khudobin may be at the top of that list.
The veteran goalie bounced around six teams in 11 NHL seasons, the past two in Dallas. Khudobin had a solid regular season, going 16-8-4 with a 2.22 goals-against average, and has been stellar in the Edmonton bubble after a few shaky starts early.
Khudobin has been a big reason the Stars lead Vegas 3-1, frustrating the Golden Knights with one spectacular save after another. He shut out Vegas in Game 1, stopped 38 shots in Game 3 and made three of his 32 saves during the Golden Knights' late third period 5-on-3 in Saturday night's series-controlling 2-1 win.
Behind Khudobin, the Stars can clinch their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 20 years Monday in Edmonton.
“He’s going to battle right till the end,” Stars coach Rick Bowness said. “That’s why the guys love playing in front of him."
The Golden Knights' goal — well, outside of winning — will be to get more traffic in front of Dallas' goalie. The Stars were outshot 33-20 by Vegas in Game 4 and the Golden Knights have more overall in the series, yet are on the cusp of being sent back to the desert.
Vegas has had plenty of good chances in Game 4 — and the series, for that matter — but Khudobin is in a zone where if he sees it, he saves it. The Golden Knights need to get in his line of sight more if they're going to stretch the Western Conference final to at least one more game.
“You can analyze this to death, but you can't coach the puck into the net,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. “When a goalie's hot, he can't see it, he can't stop it. We have to get bodies there.”
Once the bodies are there, the Golden Knights have to find the lanes to get pucks through.
They've been inconsistent at it so far in this series.
Vegas has the massive shot advantage, but many of the shots are coming from the outside or where Khudobin has a direct line of sight. The Golden Knights' shooters not only have to pick the right spots to shoot from, but the right moment to shoot — not easy when the Stars are trying to harass them off the puck.
“You’ve got to put the puck in a spot for the forwards to get a rebound and you’ve got to shoot for certain purposes,” Vegas defenceman Zach Whitecloud said. "But as far as our back end, we trust our forwards to get to the net and they’re doing a good job and it’s on us to get pucks through, get them through quickly and get them through at the right times and give them a chance to have the first opportunity for a tip and obviously second chances, too.”
Do that and the Golden Knights can extend the series. Fail and the Stars will be headed to the Stanley Cup Final.
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John Marshall, The Associated Press