LAS VEGAS — The Stanley Cup Playoffs aren’t about just the superstars. The role players, the replacements, they can be heroes too.
The Vegas Golden Knights are built on depth and resiliency. Both were on display Friday as the Western Conference Finals opened at T-Mobile Arena. There was William Karlsson scoring twice. But there was Teddy Blueger scoring the go-ahead goal in the third period and Brett Howden notching the game-winner 1:35 into overtime as the Knights defeated the Dallas Stars 4-3 to take Game 1.
Game 2 is noon Sunday in Las Vegas.
“It can’t always be the star players,” Knights coach Bruce Cassidy said. “That’s what’s good about our team; guys step up in key moments.”
For Blueger, who was acquired from Pittsburgh at the NHL trade deadline in March and had been a healthy scratch in the postseason until late in the second round against Edmonton, contributing with a goal was more than just earning his ice time. It was a matter of him being ready to make that contribution.
“You try to take advantage of your opportunities when they come,” he said. “You try to stay ready, prepare the right way every day in practice and when you’re in, try to help the team.”
Howden, who had been in and out of the lineup due to injuries this season, scored the biggest goal of his career early in OT as he corralled the puck behind the Dallas net and managed to get it past Jake Oettinger at the short side, sending the 18,271 in attendance into euphoria.
“I just tried to throw it in there,” he said. “I got lucky.”
Luck played a pivotal role in Game 1. There were flukey goals coming as a result of fortuitous bounces off the end boards, one that led to Jason Robertson getting the puck past Adin Hill late in the first period after a shot careened off the boards where the Zamboni door is and Roope Hintz found the puck on his stick. He turned and sent it toward the net and Robertson tipped it home.
The Knights got their puck luck in the second period as Zach Whitecloud’s shot was wide only to come straight out the other way where Karlsson had deftly gotten inside of Ryan Suter to win the ice to the loose puck and with Oettinger out of position, essentially had an empty net to shoot at.
And Dallas also had some additional luck of its own late as Jamie Benn was unchecked at the right doorstep and pushed it past Hill to tie it 3-3 with 1:59 left in regulation after Oettinger had been pulled for a sixth attacker with just over two minutes to play after the Knights had spent the better part of the period trying to nurse a 3-2 lead, which is a recipe for disaster.
Understand that the Stars are also a resilient bunch, They’re not rolling over. Oettinger nearly stole Game 1 Friday with a spectacular first period which included several huge stops among his first 17 saves and coach Pete DeBoer all but promised an improved start-to-finish effort for Game 2 on Sunday.
“There’s no quit in our guys; we’ve shown that,” DeBoer said afterward. “We’ve been a response team all year.
“We’ve got to play our game. We have to be better than we were (Friday).”
So what happens when you have two teams that have iron in their spine, that don’t blink when staring at an adverse moment? You get a great series. And I think that’s what fans for both of these teams should be bracing themselves for the rest of the way.
The Stars’ top guns — Benn, Robertson and Hintz — are going to be tough to contain and Oettinger may very well steal one down the line. Cassidy acknowledges as much. But DeBoer knows how depth can be a dangerous weapon in the postseason and when guys like Howden, Blueger, or Michael Amadio, who scored the OT winner in the first round against Winnipeg are contributing, and Hill makes plays in goal, it puts even more pressure on the top guys for Dallas to respond.
And 5-on-5, Vegas has shown to be extremely competitive in these playoffs.
“It’s been our strength,” Cassidy said of even-strength hockey.
But the ability to shrug off playing from behind is also a strength of the Knights. Perhaps having so many guys with playoff experience keeps everyone on an even keel when the situation might call for panic.
“We’re a resilient group,” Cassidy said. “We have the ability to score after we allow one. That’s the makeup of our group.
“When we’re able to get turnovers, we’re good enough to put pucks in the net. That’s our game and we’re not going to change. Print it or put it wherever it goes these days.”