Golden Knights take 2-0 series lead on Stars

The Vegas Golden Knights are two wins away from returning to the Stanley Cup Final after taking a 2-0 series lead on the Dallas Stars.

LAS VEGAS — With each passing minute, it looked like the Vegas Golden Knights were going to find themselves tied in the Western Conference Finals Sunday afternoon. They were getting ready to fit Chandler Stephenson and Jonathan Marchessault with goat’s horns after the two veteran forwards had taken needless penalties in the Dallas Stars’ half of the ice to put their team in a one-goal deficit.

But redemption has a funny way of showing up at just the right moment. For Marchessault, it was with 2:22 left in regulation as he took Jack Eichel’s no-look, behind-the-net backhand pass to score and tie the game 2-2.

Then, in overtime after Knights goaltender Adin Hill robbed Evgenii Dadonov in the first 30 seconds by stopping his game-winning attempt directly in front, Stephenson delivered, beating Jake Oettinger after the struggling Shea Theodore supported the play, took Mark Stone’s pass, got off a shot and have Stephenson finish with 1:12 having elapsed to give the Knights a 3-2 win and a 2-0 lead in the series.

Game 3 will be Tuesday night at American Airlines Center where Vegas will have an opportunity to put a stranglehold on the series. 

“Different people contribute for us every night,” Knights coach Bruce Cassidy said. “That’s why we have success.”

For Stephenson, atoning for two bad penalties he had taken earlier, was important, not just for himself, but for the entire team.

“There’s obviously a need to keep my emotions more in check,” he said, referring to the slashing penalty he took in the first period and the cross-checking call that landed him in the penalty box in the second. “It was nice to finish it off like that.”

The math wasn’t working for Vegas the first two periods. Over the first 40 minutes, they had managed just 10 shots on goal. That’s one shot every four minutes. You’re not going to win many hockey games that way. And the sellout crowd of 18,358 was getting frustrated with each failed attempt at generating offense.

But with an improved forecheck in the third period and winning a few battles along the boards, the Knights were finding their offensive footing. They pulled even by forcing Dallas defenseman Ryan Suter into a turnover, having Ivan Barbashev cycle the puck behind the net to Eichel, who knew Marchessault would be heading for the goal.

Suter, who has struggled mightily so far in this series, failed to find Marchessault, who took Eichel’s perfect pass on the tape of his stick and beat Oettinger.

“Jack knows our forecheck routes,” Marchessault said. “He made a great pass.”

It had to be a disheartening end for the Stars. They had played better in Game 2, having adjusted their defending in the neutral zone and getting a good forecheck to prevent Vegas from countering like it likes to do. Yet, here they are, down 2-0 in the series and in a virtual must-win situation to hold serve at home.

“I really liked our game tonight,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “We fixed a lot of things from Game 1 and it took a big-time play from Eichel and Marchy to force overtime.

“We could’ve won both games or we could be tied 1-1. The important thing is we adjusted our game to give us a chance in Game 3.”

Perhaps. But Dallas is still trying to figure out how to contain the Knights’ lineup. Stone scored during a 5-on-3 power play in the first period, Marchessault, the team’s career playoff goal-scoring leader, delivered late as he and Eichel teamed up. And Stephenson, who has a Stanley Cup ring from his time in Washington in 2018 and, according to Eichel is one of the NHL’s most underrated players, came through in the clutch and he’s tied with William Karlsson for the team lead in goals this year’s postseason with seven..

In Game 1, it was Teddy Blueger and Brett Howden who were the heroes. In Game 2 it was Eichel, Marchessault and Stephenson. It could be someone like Will Carrier or Nicolas Roy on Tuesday in Game 3.

“We’ve functioned that way all year,” Cassidy said. “We don’t rely on two or three players or our goalie to stand on his head. And you’re never out of the game when it’s one goal.”

We’ve talked often about this team’s resiliency and the ability to get contributions up and down the lineup. But it’s also a team that has believes in itself and trusts its coach and each other. They step on the ice every game, regardless of who’s the opponent, expecting to win.

The Knights weren’t intimidated by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl when they faced Edmonton. So far, they haven’t caved in against Oettinger, Jason Robertson and Joe Pavelski. 

“There’s an inner confidence in this group,” Cassidy said. “They’re respectful of the game and the opposition.

There’s still a lot of hockey to be played. And as Marchessault said, there’s much work left for this team to do. But consider this — the Golden Knights are just two wins from playing for the Stanley Cup, and they need only hold serve the rest of the way at home in order to do so.

Now that’s the kind of math that works.