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2020 Western Conference Final Preview: Stars vs. Golden Knights –



A week ago, it looked all but certain that the Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights would neatly wrap up their respective Round 2 series and meet in the Western Conference Final after a pair of dominant post-season performances. After all, both clubs were up 3-1 in the Edmonton bubble after taking swift action against their challengers and looking to close things out in five games each.

But… that’s when things got a little dicey.

Nathan MacKinnon and the Colorado Avalanche pushed back and had the Stars on the edge before Dallas settled the score in overtime of Game 7 thanks to an unexpected hero in Finnish forward Joel Kiviranta. The biggest hero in the Golden Knights’ second-round series, meanwhile, was on the other team. Vegas ran into a nearly unsolvable brick wall named Thatcher Demko, the rookie netminder behind the Vancouver Canucks’ incredible rallying efforts.

It took three extra games, but the Stars and Golden Knights each managed to right their wrongs, correct their trajectories, and come out on top. Both clubs now meet for that Western Conference Final we anticipated one week ago — only, with a few extra games played, a couple more bruises incurred, and a bit more battle hardened — and well-aware of what it feels like to suddenly find yourself on the brink of going home.

(Mark Stone has seen some things.)

A fresh start is upon them now as they go head-to-head with a berth in the Stanley Cup Final on the line. Here’s a preview of how the best in the West match up:

Playoff 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick

Dallas: 48.21 CF%, 48.53 GF%, 90.67 SV%, 9.04 SH%, 0.997 PDO
Vegas: 60.59 CF%, 59.65 GF%, 91.42 SV%, 7.78 SH%, 0.992 PDO


Dallas: 28.3 PP%, 82.3 PK%, 53 GF, 56 GA
Vegas: 20.5 PP%, 87.8 PK%, 49 GF, 35 GA


Dallas: 1-0-1
Vegas: 1-1

How Dallas got here

*Googles Joel Kiviranta*

As Game 7 of Dallas’s second-round series versus Colorado shifted into overtime, it was starting to feel a little… familiar. A year ago, the Stars found themselves on the losing end of an overtime battle against the Blues, falling just one goal shy of halting St. Louis’s historic Stanley Cup run. Redemption came Friday night, more than a year after last spring’s heartbreak, thanks to an incredible performance from Kiviranta, who completed his first-career NHL hat trick with the overtime winner to propel Dallas past their demons and into the Western Conference Final after frittering away a 3-1 series lead and coming dangerously close to a total collapse.

This Dallas team that is now descending upon the Western Conference Final is clearly a different club than it was all season, and even just a month ago. The Stars’ downfall throughout 2019-20 has been scoring — in that, they haven’t been. They managed just 178 markers through the regular season, sitting 29th in the category above just the Kings and Red Wings, and averaged a sixth-worst 2.58 goals per game. That they still managed to finish fourth in the Western Conference for a bye into Round 1 is a huge credit to their elite defence, led by the core four of Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg, Esa Lindell and Jamie Oleksiak, and strong goaltending from the tandem of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin.

That regular-season tandem, though, is now down to one — and it’s Khudobin who has been in net for 14 of the Stars’ 16 games while Bishop has been on and off of the team’s unfit-to-play list. Khudobin has come up big in several situations and is no doubt a big part of this team’s success, but as his stats indicate (2.94 goals-against average, .909 save percentage, no shutouts) he’s keeping the Stars afloat, not steering the ship.

Unable to lean quite as heavily on goaltending, the Stars have been forced to play a much more offensive-minded game. Gone are the days when they can win 1-0 and 2-1 games — all four of their victories over Colorado required five goals from the Stars, placing them second among all playoff teams in total goals scored (53, behind the club they just eliminated) and fourth in goals per game (3.31) through 16 contests.

How Vegas got here

Coming out of the round robin as the top seed and making quick work of the should’ve-been-lottery-bound Chicago Blackhawks, the Goliath Golden Knights had not truly been tested until about midway through their second-round series against Vancouver. That’s when the Canucks taught them two very important lessons they must carry with them if they want to keep this show on the road against Dallas.

The first is to never underestimate an opponent, no matter where they sat in the regular-season standings or how many games you’re up in the series. Up 3-1 and outscoring Vancouver by a combined 15-8, Vegas ran into trouble in Game 5 — and his name was Thatcher Demko. Suddenly, their elite two-way play was truly put to the test by Vancouver, their high-volume shooting falling short compared to the Canucks’ quality chances. Demko almost single-handedly sent the Golden Knights packing, letting just one goal past him in Game 5, shutting them out in Game 6, and then almost repeating that feat in the seventh.

That’s where the second lesson comes in: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. And then again. And then keep trying. Seriously, just keep shooting the puck, it’s your only option. The Golden Knights’ high shot volume was never more evident than when none of those shots were actually going in. Despite outshooting the Canucks 125-53 in Games 5, 6 and 7 combined, they had just two goals to show for their barrage of pucks, with both goals coming off the stick of defenceman and leading scorer Shea Theodore — with 98 Golden Knights shots separating them.

Theodore’s late-game heroics are what ultimately got the Golden Knights over their toughest opponent yet — and what kept head coach Pete DeBoer’s impressive Game 7 streak alive.

Stars X-Factor: Miro Heiskanen. Kiviranta was the Game 7 hero, but it’s fellow Finn Heiskanen who’s been the biggest driving force for Dallas this post-season. If you didn’t know much about the smooth-skating defenceman before this summer, you do now. The 21-year-old registered at least one point in all seven games of Round 2 and rides an eight-game point streak into the conference final. He leads all Stars in assists (16), points (21) and ice time (25:54 per game), and sits second league-wide in the post-season scoring race.

Golden Knights X-Factor: Shea Theodore. When we talk about the Golden Knights, we talk about Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty and Reilly Smith and their potent offence filled with elite two-way players. We also talk about Theodore, and he’s about to become an even bigger talking point as Vegas moves on. Just like Dallas, Vegas’s leading scorer is their best young defenceman. Not only is Theodore a beast on the blue line, he’s also a constant scoring threat every time he’s on the ice. His shot from the point is lethal, and no Golden Knight has put more shots on opponents’ nets this post-season than the 25-year-old (64). That persistence has paid off. Stumped by Demko during their series against the Canucks, it was Theodore — and only Theodore — who managed to score on the phenom.

Dallas will win if: They can keep their offensive firepower going.

…Goals? For wins? Groundbreaking.

As much as you can praise their newly-discovered high-scoring ways, there’s a troubling counter-stat: 56 — that’s the number of goals they’ve allowed this post-season, which is tops in the league by a mile and 21 more than Vegas has allowed. Sure, Khudobin just faced the league’s most potent offence and is still standing, but he’s about to face another barrage of shots from the Golden Knights, whose average of 37.1 shots fired per game is just above Colorado’s mark. It’s hard to see any low-scoring victories in the Stars’ future, which means they’ll have to keep this offence firing if they’re to keep pace with the Golden Knights.

Vegas will win if: Robin Lehner keeps being Robin Lehner. Despite a little controversy in the crease involving a certain photoshopped sword you’ve undoubtedly seen by now, goaltending has been a real source of strength for Vegas. All three of Lehner’s victories over Vancouver were shutouts (Marc-Andre Fleury backstopped them to victory in Game 4) and keeping that crease on lock down will ultimately be the difference-maker if they’re to hoist the Cup at the end of this.

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Blue Jays sit 1 win away from clinching playoff berth after thumping Yankees –



The Toronto Blue Jays showed Wednesday night why they could be a dangerous wild-card team in the playoffs.

Danny Jansen hit two solo homers as the Blue Jays used a 16-hit attack and eight-run sixth inning to bulldoze the New York Yankees 14-1 at Sahlen Field. Jansen had four hits and three runs to help the Blue Jays move closer to nailing down a playoff berth.

“Putting ourselves in this spot is a great feeling,” Jansen said. “But we’ve still got work to do.”

Toronto (29-27) trimmed its magic number to one with the victory and can secure its first post-season spot since 2016 with a win in Thursday’s series finale.

Cavan Biggio scored three times, Randal Grichuk added a pair of runs and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., had three RBIs. Starter Robbie Ray was effective over four-plus innings and A.J. Cole threw a scoreless fifth inning for the win.

Under Major League Baseball’s expanded playoff structure, 16 teams will reach the post-season. Division winners will be seeded No. 1 through No. 3 in each league, second-place teams will be seeded fourth through sixth, and two third-place wild-card teams will get the seventh and eighth seeds.

The Los Angeles Angels, currently ninth in the AL, kept their faint playoff hopes alive earlier Wednesday with a 5-2 win over the San Diego Padres.

Facing veteran right-hander Masahiro Tanaka (3-3), the Blue Jays took advantage of a couple breaks to put up two quick runs in the first inning.

With Biggio on after a leadoff walk, Teoscar Hernandez hit a double-play ball up the middle that took an unexpected high bounce near the lip of the grass and rolled into the outfield.

Guerrero stroked a single that scored Biggio with the game’s first run. Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez tried to pick the young slugger off first base but a wide throw went down the right-field line as Hernandez trotted home.

Ray earns timely outs

Ray breezed through the first inning but issued two walks in the second. Gio Urshela singled to load the bases and a passed ball allowed Luke Voit to score the Yankees’ lone run.

New York loaded the bases with none out in the fifth inning. But Cole (3-0) held off the heart of the Yankees’ order by fanning Giancarlo Stanton and getting Voit — who leads the majors in homers — on an infield fly and then Gleyber Torres on a flyout.

“That was really the game,” Jansen said. “Saving that was huge for us. Bases loaded, no outs, coming in and getting that. There’s a lot of momentum swing right there.”

Toronto followed New York’s lead by putting its first three batters on base in the sixth. The Blue Jays took full advantage by batting around with a two-run single by Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Biggio’s two-run double serving as highlight blows.

The victory came a day after New York dumped Toronto 12-1.

“Today was a big game after yesterday,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “That’s what they’ve done all year — come back from top losses. It was great to see, facing another good pitcher like Tanaka, coming back tonight and scoring all those runs. A big win for us.”

New York (32-24) had four hits and a season-high four errors. The Yankees have a magic number of one to secure a second-place finish in the East Division.

Ray, who was pulled after the first two batters reached in the fifth, allowed three hits, four walks and had five strikeouts. Tanaka gave up three earned runs, eight hits and three walks while striking out five.

Jansen, who went deep off Tanaka in the fourth, added another shot in the eighth off Yankees catcher Erik Kratz, giving the Toronto backstop six homers on the season.

Toronto was a wild-card entry when it last reached the post-season four years ago. The Blue Jays went on to reach the AL Championship Series for the second straight year.

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Jays win big, magic number is 1 – Bluebird Banter



Yankees 1 Blue Jays 14

Our magic number is now 1. A win tomorrow (or in any of our last four games) would put us into the playoffs.

It is nice when the other team forgets how to play baseball. The Yankees made 4 official errors and a few unofficial ones. They were just playing bad baseball all night.

We got a good start from Bob Rae (as much as it hurts the old man in me to say that 4+ innings is a good start). Through four innings he allowed just 2 hits and 3 walks with 5 strikeouts. There was an unearned run against him, scoring on a passed ball (he and Jansen got crossed up, Ray threw a fastball, Jansen thought something bendy was coming). He went to full counts too much, but he kept the Yankees off the bases.

Ray allowed a walk and a single to start off the fifth and that was it. A.J. Cole came in a gave up a walk to load the bases. Looking at the final score, it doesn’t seem like there should have been a big moment of the game on the pitching side, but this was a big moment. We were up 5-1 with Giancarlo Stanton, Luke Viot and Gleyber Torres coming up. But Cole got a strikeout, popout and fly out. It was nice to see because Cole has had a rough time of it lately.

Ross Stripling pitched the last four inning, giving up just 1 hit with 1 strikeout. He gets a save on a game we won by 13.

We scored 2 in the first, 1 in the third, 2 in the fourth, 8 in the sixth and 1 in the eighth. Our hitters:

  • Cavan Biggio was 2 for 5 with a walk, double and 2 RBI.
  • Bo Bichette was 2 for 4, with 2 walks, double, 2 RBI (he had 3 walks on the season before tonight).
  • Teoscar Hernandez 1 or 4.
  • Randal Grichuk 1 for 4, 1 walk, 1 RBI.
  • Vladimir Guerrero was 2 for 5, double, 3 RBI. He had an interesting night. He misjudged a popup in the first inning. Thankfully it didn’t cost us a run. He drew a pick off throw from Gary Sanchez, by taking a few steps towards second on a strike and Sanchez threw wide of first, getting us a free run. Then an crushed RBI double in third, an RBI ground out. And he made a very nice play, again a going a long way off first to get a ball, but Stripling got to the bag at first in plenty of time, and Vlad made a nice throw hitting the moving target.
  • Lourdes Gurriel was 3 for 5 with an RBI.
  • Travis Shaw was 1 for 5 with an RBI.
  • Joe Panik only managed a walk.
  • Danny Jansen hit 2 home runs on a 4 for 4 night, with 3 RBI. Yes, one of the home runs was off Yankees’ catcher Erik Kratz (but it still counts).

Jays of the Day: Cole (.119 WPA), Vlad (.190) and Jansen (.107).

No Suckage Jays. Shaw had the low mark at -.063.

Tomorrow is our last game of this four game series against the Yankees and then we have a weekend series against the Orioles to end the season.

We had 847 comments in the GameThread. I led us to victory (and I didn’t even have a beer tonight). But I did have a nice day. I took a drive out in the country and saw the changing of the colours, while avoiding the news for a day. I’d say it was a mental health day, but there really is no mental health left.

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Lightning’s Stamkos secures place in Cup lore with Game 3 goal vs. Stars –



EDMONTON — Seven seconds.

That’s how much time the puck spent on Steven Stamkos’s stick blade on this night, and perhaps that’s all it will spend there throughout the entirety of this Tampa Bay Lightning playoff run.

That’s all the hard-luck captain needed to secure his place in Stanley Cup lore. Seven freaking seconds.

Somehow, after spending 60 days as a practice-only player inside the NHL bubble and going 210 days between games, Stamkos scored the biggest goal of a career overflowing with them.

He was in full stride down the right boards when Victor Hedman hit him in the neutral zone. He blew past Esa Lindell, who defended the play poorly and managed to settle a bouncing puck in time to tuck it up under the crossbar behind Anton Khudobin.

The Lightning bench exploded. Jon Cooper said the reaction was “just a little bit louder” than any of the others during a playoff run that has included five overtime goals. The coach saw it as a sign his team wouldn’t be denied, and they weren’t while grabbing a 2-1 series lead over the Dallas Stars with a 5-2 victory Wednesday.

“It was pretty damn cool,” said Cooper.

Stamkos called it a dream come true.

Forget the unfortunate timing of the injuries that have cost him big playoff games and a chance at playing for Team Canada at the Olympics in recent years. Just being trapped inside the bubble with no guarantee of playing would be agony for someone who has given as much to the Lightning as Stamkos.

And then to get in for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, and only be able to play five shifts and score on one of them after not playing for seven months?

Hollywood might not accept that script.

“At this time of the year, you want to do anything you can to help your team win,” said Stamkos. “I’ve watched these guys be so committed to what our end goal is, and to be part of it tonight, it was a dream come true and I’m so proud of these guys. And to be able to share that moment with them and just even be on the bench and watch how well we played tonight, I have told these guys before: It’s inspiring.

“It was great to be part of.”

Quickly, the backstory: Stamkos underwent core muscle surgery on March 2 and was supposed to be recovered in time for the second round of a normal playoffs. Then we had the COVID-19 pause, he had some kind of setback while preparing for the NHL’s return to play and the Lightning have gone on a run without him.

But he’s remained a large figure in the shadows.

You could see him dousing Brayden Point with water after he scored a quintuple overtime goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Round 1 and he was summoned to the ice to help the Lightning accept the Prince of Wales Trophy after they eliminated the New York Islanders.

Everything he had to endure in order to even play for two minutes 41 seconds of Wednesday’s game has happened behind the walls. And based on the fact he sat on the bench while not taking a shift for the final 46 minutes here suggests we might not see him in uniform again for the rest of this series.

So that goal? That was something.

“He’s worked extremely hard to get back to a spot where he could play,” said Brayden Point. “Just seeing him day in and day out — the positivity that he brings, and the leadership that he brings. It’s nice to see him work that hard to get back into the lineup. And then to score one? It’s pretty inspirational for everyone.”

Added Victor Hedman: “This is how much he means to us as a teammate and as a leader and as a friend. We were just super happy for him.”

Stamkos played six games against the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2015 Final and didn’t manage to score. In this situation, the Lightning put him on the fourth line alongside Cedric Paquette (zero goals this playoffs) and Pat Maroon (one goal this playoffs) and he produced one in limited minutes before his injury forced him to become a spectator.

What happens next will determine what this means historically.

But what it meant to Stamkos and the Lightning won’t change no matter what. He’s only going to get so many chances like this one.

“It was amazing to be a part of a huge win for us,” he said. “I was just really happy to obviously contribute in a game that I didn’t play too much.”

This was a kid who used to go to shooting school twice per week and fire 500 pucks per session. That’s a skill that endured the injuries, the layoff, everything.

It made this moment possible.

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