DALLAS — Thursday night at American Airlines Center, the Golden Knights and Stars went to overtime for the third time, only four games into the Western Conference finals.
This time the Stars pulled it out when Joe Pavelski crushed a one-timer into the top corner of the net to give Dallas a 3-2 victory and its first win of the series. It extended the Stars’ season and forced a Game 5 in Las Vegas, where the Golden Knights will take their 3-1 series edge and try again for a closeout.
Pavelski’s game-winning shot was clutch, and that’s nothing new. He leads all active players with 73 career playoff goals, breaking a tie with Alex Ovechkin. There was nothing fortunate about the shot, but the play that led to it was a mad scramble in Vegas’ zone that started with a diving poke by Jason Robertson and ended with Golden Knights goalie Adin Hill losing his stick before allowing the winning goal.
That wasn’t the only bounce that went Dallas’ way Thursday.
Dallas’ score-tying goal by Robertson was the result of a missed shot by Miro Heiskanen that bounced off the end boards and right to Robertson’s stick with a wide-open net.
On Robertson’s first goal of the game he popped the puck into the air in front of the net, then tipped it again just as Hill tried to snatch it with his glove, and tipped it a third time into the net. It was a tremendous display of hand-eye coordination, but even he acknowledged after that the bounces went his way in Game 4.
“We got the bounces that we needed tonight,” he said. “We just have to keep working for it and they’re eventually going to come. … You just fight for the puck and got a couple bounces. It was nice to finally see one go in. You work for those bounces.”
That’s not to discredit the Stars. Hockey is a game of bounces, especially this deep into the playoffs when the teams are evenly matched and the players are defending with this level of desperation. Goals rarely come easily and are increasingly the result of a strange hop here and there.
Teams that earn those bounces win games. On Thursday, Dallas earned all of its bounces, just as Vegas did in Games 1 and 2.
The funny thing about “lucky bounces” in hockey is they’re rarely the result of fortune. The side with better execution, intensity and pace usually gets those bounces. Like Harvey Dent and his two-sided coin, hockey teams generally make their own luck.
The series might have appeared like a one-sided affair based on the 3-0 tally going into Game 4, but the games themselves have been razor thin. The Golden Knights edged out Game 1 with a gutsy win that included several bounces that went their way — like William Karlsson’s goal that was nearly a mirror image of Robertson’s first one Thursday.
The Stars appeared to have Game 2 in hand, until Jack Eichel and Jonathan Marchessault turned it on late to force overtime, and Chandler Stephenson jumped on a loose puck in front of the net to win it.
Outside of Tuesday’s 4-0 Vegas win, the teams have been evenly matched. Up until Thursday, Vegas had outworked Dallas, won the majority of its board battles, pressured on the forecheck and earned its bounces. As close as the games were, Vegas earned that sizable series lead. On Thursday, with their backs against the wall, the Stars punched back.
“Their desperation was a little higher than ours,” Marchessault said. “At this time of year, it’s not about X’s and O’s. It’s about who wants it more, and I thought they wanted it more than us.”
Early in the game, Dallas came out with a strong forecheck that pressured the Golden Knights into mistakes in their own end. Pete DeBoer tweaked his strategy a bit, pressuring heavily on the strong side of the puck. His players responded with a higher level of aggressiveness and regularly outnumbered the Golden Knights on the strong side of the ice.
“I thought our breakout was not good enough,” Marchessault said. “It’s not only on our defensemen. It’s five guys out there. We have to give easy options. In the third period, we started making better plays and it showed, we had a couple odd-man rushes.”
Dallas’ improved forecheck didn’t just lead to more offensive zone time, but it also opened up the Stars’ transition attack for the first time this series. Vegas’ skaters spent the majority of their shifts defending and trying to get the puck out of the zone, so by the time they finally did, they immediately skated to the bench for a change. That meant the defensive structure wasn’t set up in time for the next wave of attack, and that opened more ice for the Stars’ most skilled players.
“They’re a good team,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “They have good players and their top players finished plays for them tonight.”
Vegas eventually adjusted to Dallas’ forecheck changes, rimming the puck behind the net more to switch the play to the opposite side of the ice rather than forcing it up the boards where the Stars’ defensemen pinched the blue line. As the game went on, the Golden Knights broke the puck out of the zone cleaner, using Dallas’ aggressiveness against it to create odd-man rushes the other way.
“I think they were willing to trade a little bit more,” Reilly Smith said. “Their defensemen were pinching a little bit, giving us some chances for two-on-ones and three-on-twos. Sometimes with that, you get caught going the wrong way and they get opportunities.”
The Golden Knights weren’t able to convert on many of those chances late, as Stars goalie Jake Oettinger had his strongest game of the series, but the overall pace of play flipped in their favor in the third period.
At the end of the day, it was a missed opportunity to close the series out, and that undoubtedly stings for Vegas. There’s no reason for panic, and there wasn’t an ounce of that inside the dressing room after. Players acknowledged they didn’t execute well enough or play fast enough Thursday to end the series and realize they get another chance to do that in two days.
“That’s not the way we play,” Marchessault said. “We play a hard-checking game with discipline and tonight that wasn’t the case. We learn from it. Tomorrow is a new day. We wake up and get ready for Game 5.”
It won’t be easy, and it shouldn’t be. The Golden Knights know they’ll need improved execution passing the puck out of their zone and an elevated intensity on their own forecheck.
That’s how they earn the bounces. It’s how they can turn the tide back in their favor and close the series out.
(Photo of Jonathan Marchessault: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)