LAS VEGAS — It was a year ago this week that Pete DeBoer found himself on the unemployment line. But he didn’t stay unemployed for long.
Bruce Cassidy also found himself out of work a few weeks later. But that didn’t last long either.
Two of the NHL’s more successful coaches go head-to-head beginning Friday with a berth in the Stanley Cup Final on the line as DeBoer’s Dallas Stars face off against Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights in the best-of-7 Western Conference Finals beginning Friday at 5:30 p.m. at T-Mobile Arena. Game 2 is noon Sunday before the series shifts to Dallas Tuesday night for Game 3.
DeBoer has already been through the awkwardness that comes with returning to your former place of employment. That came in January when the Stars visited T-Mobile Arena and beat the Knights 4-0. Dallas swept the season series, winning 3-2 in a shootout in Vegas on Feb. 25 and 2-1 in a shootout April 8 at American Airlines Center.
“I guess ironic comes to mind,” DeBoer said Thursday. “I think I went through all it when I was here in January when I came back for the first time. For me, it’s all in the rear-view mirror. I’m all in with the Dallas Stars. That’s how it works.”
DeBoer holds no animosity against Cassidy. The two were scheduled to coach together on John Cooper’s Team Canada staff for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China before the NHL opted out of the Games. They’ve known each other a long time.
“I like Pete,” Cassidy said earlier in the week when asked about going up against DeBoer. “He’s a nice guy. But I want to beat him.”
At this point, it doesn’t matter who either guy was coaching for or against. With a trip to the Final on the line, all friendships are put on hold until after the handshakes.
Whether DeBoer has an edge from having coached the majority of Cassidy’s Vegas players may be negated by the fact those players know how he coaches.
“It cuts both ways,” said defenseman Shea Theodore. “He knows how we play, what our strengths and weakness are. But we know his system and what he likes to do.”
Knights captain Mark Stone added: “In the end, we’re playing the Dallas Stars. It cancels itself out so it really doesn’t make any difference.”
Neither coach would admit it but both Cassidy and DeBoer will have plenty of motivational fuel driving them. Obviously, DeBoer would like to show Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon he made a mistake in letting him go after just failing to qualify for the 2022 postseason following a slew of injuries while Cassidy would love to still be playing while his former team, the Boston Bruins, are sitting at home watching him do his thing behind the VGK bench.
Both are excellent at making adjustments quickly and reading the situation. Both won’t hesitate to insert someone into the lineup if he thinks it will help, as was the case in the last series against Edmonton when Cassidy put Teddy Blueger in and sat Michael Amadio, who had played well in the opening series against Winnipeg.
The Knights’ depth and experience may be what tips the scales in their favor. They’ve been getting contributions up and down the lineup through the first two rounds of the playoffs and if Theodore can get his game out of first gear and contribute, it might be enough to get them over the hump.
“I definitely need to play better,” said the defenseman, who missed the during the season but said he’s fine at the moment. “I talked to Nabber (Brayden McNabb) about it and I know I can do more to help the team than what I’ve done so far.”
In 10 games this postseason, Theodore has failed to register a goal. He does have five assists. Fortunately for him, his teammates have picked him up and the Knights are getting solid play from their third defensive pairing of Zach Whitecloud and Nic Hague. Each has a goal and they’re the only VGK defensemen to light the lamp in the playoffs.
In the opening round, Mark Stone and Jack Eichel were setting the pace. In round two, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith delivered. It makes it tough for DeBoer trying to figure out who to single out for extra attention.
“When we played them this year, Mark Stone didn’t play against us,” DeBoer said. “He’s a real difference-maker and I have tremendous respect for all the players in that room. We won a lot of games together. But we have to figure out a way to beat them and win this series.”
For the Knights, the plan is a simple two-pronged one. Don’t let Joe Pavelski dominate offensively and get plenty of shots on goaltender Jake Oettenger, who was sensational in Dallas’ 2-1 win in Game 7 Monday over Seattle.
The Knights and their fans know Pavelski all too well. Who can forget the 2019 Playoffs against San Jose when Cody Eakin was called for a five-minute major after injuring Pavelski off a faceoff? The Sharks, coached by DeBoer at the time, rallied for four third-period goals, and ultimately, a 6-5 overtime win in Game 7 to knock the Knights out of the postseason.
DeBoer would take over for Gerard Gallant a few months later and spent 2 1/2 years with Vegas. The Knights made the conference finals twice but failed to make the postseason last year, leading in part in McCrimmon’s decision to make a change on the bench.
Pavelski has eight goals and 10 points in eight games so far. His uncanny ability to tip in shots from anywhere makes him extremely dangerous and Cassidy agreed the Knights will need to account for his whereabouts whenever he’s on the ice. Same for Roope Hintz, Dallas’ top offensive performer in the playoffs with nine goals and 19 points along with the talented and always-dangerous Jason Robertson, who has just two goals in 13 games so far but could bust out at any time.
In Oettenger, Dallas has a proven commodity in net. He struggled at times vs. the Kraken in Round Two but when the money was on the line, he delivered. The Knights have to hope Adin Hill, who has played well since taking over for the injured Laurent Brossoit in the Edmonton series, can hold up his end and keep Dallas from dominating offensively.
“The guys in front of me have played great,” Hill said Thursday. “I feel good about the way I’m playing. Just stay on my feet and stop the puck.”
The Knights were tops in the Western Conference, winning the Pacific Division with 111 points while the Stars finished second in the Central Division with 108 points. The power play, which struggled when DeBoer was in Vegas, was fifth in the NHL this season at 22.3 percent with assistant Steve Spott at the helm, same as when he was with the Knights. In the playoffs, the Stars are connecting at a 31.7 percent clip with the man advantage. The Knights are the worst of the four remaining playoff teams on the power play at 17.5 percent.
And while both coaches won’t be lacking motivation, both agree that it will be the players who decide it.
“I’ve been to five conference finals in eight years and I can tell you that between Bruce and myself, one of us will get too much credit for winning and one of us will get too much blame for losing,” DeBoer said.