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Hockey

How the Stars Turned the Tables On Las Vegas

Less than a week ago, the Stars were down 0-2 and on the brink of disaster. Now the series is tied after back-to-back road wins. Here's what changed.
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Dallas has done a lot more celebrating in the past two games than the first pair. Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

Sequence is everything when it comes to sports fandom. Iron-man streaks and no-hitters and the 1972 Dolphins are memorable not for the achievement alone, but also because of the unbroken nature of it. It’s why NHL coaches are always preaching “consistency.” What you’ve done lately is more impressive if it’s also what you’ve done repeatedly. 

The Stars have won the last two games in their opening-round series against the Vegas Golden Knights. That means the vibes are good, just as they would be a lot less good had the Stars won two games at home before dropping two games on the road. Same result, different perceived momentum. It’s now a best-of-three series, but it might as well be a long homestand, the way Dallas has come back to life after a dreary start on home ice that had many wondering if the series would even get back to the AAC.

Still, this is a series between two NHL heavyweights, so we knew these games wouldn’t be won easily. Real territory is being battled for. It’s no coincidence that this is the only series in the first round to be even at two games apiece when all the other series got lopsided (if not done with) in a hurry. Dallas and Vegas are the two tallest teams in the NHL, and they’re also among the heaviest in terms of average weight. This is a rematch of the 2023 Western Conference Final, but it also might effectively be the 2024 West Final. These teams are not messing around.

It does feel as if the Stars are leading after clawing back to tie the series, too. Dallas has gained ground more recently, and outside of a couple of periods filled with a lot of Vegas shots (like the third period of Game 4), the Stars seem to have a tenable strategy against the reigning champions. The recipe for success essentially has four parts: control the most dangerous parts of the ice, roll four forward lines, trust your superior goaltending, and let your best defensemen do the bulk of the work. 

And that’s been effective. The Stars are decisively out-chancing Vegas. Despite both teams having scored 11 goals, the Stars are leading in high-danger chances at 5v5 by a 2-to-1 ratio. That speaks to both how good Logan Thompson has been in net for Vegas and the choosiness of the Stars, who have sometimes seemed to struggle to generate shots. The fact is, Peter DeBoer is fine with Dallas being picky rather than shooting pucks that only get blocked by Vegas’s large skaters well before making it to the net. That might mean the Stars are ceding ground in their zone for uncomfortable periods of time, but that’s because they’re trying to generate high-quality chances as opposed to a volumetric attack. It’s hard to argue with the results. 

The forward depth is starting to show, too. Despite scoring the opening goal of the series, Mark Stone has been rather ineffective. In fact, Vegas has essentially become a team that relies on special teams and 4-on-4 play to score consistently, with only the Jack Eichel line really contributing. Just one Vegas forward line other than Eichel’s has generated a 5-on-5 goal, and that was from Michael Amadio in Game 4. Dallas, by contrast, has gotten a 5v5 goal from every forward line. The Stars’ depth isn’t caving Vegas, but it is turning the tide.

The goaltending has been noteworthy as well, although not always for the right reasons. Thompson has surrendered two certified stinkers: the goal from Mason Marchment along the boards in Game 1, and the coconut bounce off his mask by Evgenii Dadonov on Monday night that gave the Stars life at the end of a listless first period. 

Jake Oettinger, on the other hand, has only gotten better as the series has worn on. Nearly every goal the Stars’ netminder has given up has been on a wide-open tip, an uncontested rebound, or an odd-numbered rush. That’s not an excuse, of course; goalies have to be elite in the playoffs no matter what is thrown at them. But the goaltending provides healthy context when it comes to anticipating future outcomes. Thompson stood on his head in a Game 3 overtime loss that is starting to feel like it will be the turning point of the series, while Oettinger was quietly confident in a Game 4 that had to drive Vegas crazy. For a team with Dallas’ depth up front, solid goaltending should be more than enough to make things tough on the Golden Knights. 

But the Stars’ depth on the back end is worth spotlighting, too, albeit in a different sense. Dallas has chosen to go with effectively five defensemen each night, which means Nils Lundkvist has been put in the tough position of sitting for the second half of playoff games. I can’t imagine what that’s like, seeing guys lay it on the line, blocking shots and fist-bumping after gutsy shifts while your pads remain dry and your seat never changes. I also can’t imagine why this is the preferred approach as opposed to dressing, say, Derrick Pouliot, who is the closest thing the Stars have to a replacement for the recently traded Joel Hanley. 

Nonetheless, DeBoer and his coaching staff have preferred five defensemen, and those five haven’t seemed to wear down. One of the reasons for that is probably the fact that every one of them has recently been, or is, a top-pairing defenseman. Miro Heiskanen and Thomas Harley require no explanation; they’ve continued to churn out quality shifts even with Vegas throwing everything it can at them. As an aside, however, Heiskanen has started to show mild signs of fatigue. The top pairing has rotated partners with regularity as a result of the five-defenseman rotation, and Heiskanen is now sitting at 114 minutes—an average of almost 29 minutes per game. For you non-math majors out there, that’s nearly half a 60-minute game, which is a lot. Heiskanen has a preternatural skating ability, but Dallas would do well to spell him on occasion if it wants him to have his legs in the most crucial games of the series. 

The defensive depth extends to Esa Lindell and Ryan Suter, both of whom have long been accustomed to playing heavy minutes. Those two have acquitted themselves quite well through four games of heavier usage, with Suter in particular sitting at a plus-4 goal-differential in his 72 minutes of 5v5 play. That’s a far cry from last year, when Suter made a bad mistake in Game 2 during top-pairing-by-default duty. This time around, Suter has put up solid shifts with few mistakes, in no small part because of the reduced role the longtime veteran has played.

Chris Tanev is the reason Suter has taken on that reduced role, and he has done so with aplomb. After being the most obvious target at the trade deadline, Tanev has proven Jim Nill’s instincts more correct than ever. Tanev has played almost 90 minutes at even-strength in this series, and the Golden Knights have not scored during that time, and have barely generated opportunities. The 34-year-old has been everything the Stars could have hoped for, and more. Between his excellent skating ability and his expert gap on attacking forwards, he has neutralized a Vegas attack that will surely make some tweaks for Game 5. And if your second-pairing defenseman is forcing the Stanley Cup champions to change their approach, he’s doing something right. 

The Stars have climbed out of a horrible hole against one of the most fearsome teams in the league. Teams don’t do that unless they’ve got a lot of luck on their side or are a pretty great side to begin with. Dallas leads Vegas in all the important metrics, and it has all the momentum plus home-ice advantage reclaimed. That doesn’t mean anything once the puck gets dropped in Game 5, but the Stars have done everything you could have asked of them since going down 2-0. Now it’s time for them to finish the job. 

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Robert Tiffin

Robert Tiffin

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Robert Tiffin covers the Stars for StrongSide. He has worked for SB Nation as a writer and editor, covering the…
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