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N.H.L. Conference Finals Begin After Hectic Second Round

Against the sizzle of late summer, the ice in Edmonton, Alberta, is being prepared to host both of the N.H.L.’s conference finals, beginning with Sunday night’s Game 1 of the Western Conference series between the Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights. In the Eastern series, the Tampa Bay Lightning will clash with the Islanders, starting with Game 1 on Monday night.

A conference semifinal round with three Game 7s makes for a tough act to follow, but these matchups feature no shortage of intrigue.

Vegas nearly became the first team to lose a series after holding a 3-1 lead in two consecutive seasons. It did so against the San Jose Sharks last year and nearly fell victim to some supernatural goaltending from the Canucks rookie Thatcher Demko, who had stopped 98 straight shots — leaving Vegas’s star forward Mark Stone shaking his head in the postgame handshake line — before Shea Theodore’s game-winning goal in Game 7.

Instead, the Golden Knights became the first franchise to advance to the conference finals in two of its first three seasons in the N.H.L. after having reached the Stanley Cup finals in 2017-18, their inaugural season.

The Stars endured a similar struggle late in their series, having reached Game 7 after holding a 3-1 lead over the Colorado Avalanche. Joel Kiviranta, who had played only 11 regular-season games, scored a hat-trick, including the overtime winner, to finish off a battered Colorado side led by center Nathan MacKinnon, the playoffs’ top scorer to date. The Stars reached their fifth conference final since the franchise relocated to Dallas from Minnesota in 1993, with their last appearance in 2008. They won the organization’s only Stanley Cup in 1999.

Dallas was a suffocating defensive team during the regular season, ranking second in goals-against per game while having only one player, forward Tyler Seguin, exceed 40 points. With 178 goals, it was the third-worst offense in the N.H.L. and the worst among postseason qualifiers. But the Stars have found their stride offensively in the playoffs. Defenseman Miro Heiskanen had led all blue-liners in scoring. And wing Denis Gurianov led the Stars in goals in both the regular season and playoffs. The familiar trio of Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov clicked earlier in the postseason. Over all, they have the postseason’s fourth-best scoring average.

A broader statistical analysis places the Stars at a significant disadvantage. They are the only team that has managed to reach the conference finals with a negative goal differential. Their goaltending, led primarily in the postseason by Anton Khudobin, has been unspectacular. He and Ben Bishop have backstopped the Stars to the worst team goals against average of any team that made it out of the first round.

ImageGolden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner has 12 wins this postseason, including a Game 7 shutout against the Vancouver Canucks.
Credit…Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

That is compounded by Vegas’s comparatively solid numbers. It is an eyelash behind the Stars in scoring in the playoffs but allows 2.33 goals per game compared with Dallas’s 3.5. Both teams have a formidable mix of speed and size, with Vegas being led by the two-way standout wing Stone. Much like how Dallas has been keyed by Heiskanen and John Klingberg from the back end, Vegas has seen Theodore and Nate Schmidt assume larger roles in its attack. In goal, the trade deadline acquisition Robin Lehner has started 12 of Vegas’s 15 games this postseason and earned eight victories. Marc-Andre Fleury, heretofore a franchise pillar, has won all three of his decisions.

Both teams made in-season coaching changes, with Dallas dismissing Jim Montgomery for “unprofessional conduct” in December and Vegas tiring of volatile play under Gerard Gallant as a strong alternative became available. Dallas promoted the veteran assistant coach Rick Bowness, while Vegas looked to Peter DeBoer, who had been fired by the Sharks amid their abjectly disappointing campaign. DeBoer has had the Midas touch in his first season behind the bench. He took over the Devils in 2011-12 and led them to the Stanley Cup finals. He replicated that feat when he assumed control of San Jose in 2015-16. But, as he’s in his 12th season as a head coach, DeBoer has found winning a championship elusive.

The Lightning have now reached the conference finals five times over the past 10 seasons, winning once before falling to the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2015 Stanley Cup finals, and losing in seven games three times. Last season, they won a record-tying 62 regular-season games, only to be swept in the first round. This season, they have become focused on becoming more adaptable. They emphasized versatility, doggedness and defensive ability by paying handsomely for a pair of bottom-six forwards, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, at the trade deadline.

That has paid off, as the Lightning appear comfortable in either a battle of attrition or a free-flowing game with few whistles. They’ve also needed depth up front given that center Steven Stamkos, a two-time goal-scoring champion, has yet to play in these playoffs and right wing Nikita Kucherov, last season’s most valuable player and scoring champion, sustained an injury in Game 5 of their series against Boston. In the between-the-lines vernacular of the playoffs, one might surmise that Kucherov is a possibility and Stamkos is doubtful for Game 1.

Credit…Elsa/Getty Images

Center Brayden Point has led the Bolts in goals and points, as the team has put up elite possession numbers. Defenseman Victor Hedman has lived up to his Norris Trophy billing by recording nine points in 13 games and a plus-11 rating, which ties him with two Islanders for the best rating in the conference. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has been a leviathan in net and played every minute of the playoffs. He leads the league in victories and time on ice while posting a .931 save percentage and a 1.91 goals against average.

While the Lightning finished off the Bruins in five games, the Islanders needed seven, three of which went to overtime, to advance past the Philadelphia Flyers. Whether that leaves their club energized or exhausted remains to be seen, but the Islanders have seldom shied away from adversity or physical play.

Persistence, soundness and poise have been elements of Coach Barry Trotz’s team in New York, which is in its first conference final since 1993.

The Islanders are the only team remaining that had to play a qualifying round series. They have advanced by consistently rolling four forward lines and three defense pairings that have all produced. The second-liners Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson have been their leading scorers. The top line of Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle has been a constant offensive threat. Semyon Varlamov has nine wins, but it was Thomas Greiss who earned the Game 7 shutout win against Philadelphia on Friday in Toronto.

If the Islanders advance, it would be their first finals appearance since 1984, which was their fifth consecutive trip on the heels of four straight championships.

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