The Vegas Golden Knights' bubble has been popped.
The Knights had an up-and-down regular season that saw them struggle before firing head coach Gerard Gallant in favor of Pete DeBoer, but they were also one of the hottest teams in the league when the league's regular season shut down in March. They picked up where they left off following the restart, securing the Western Conference's top seed with strong play in the round robin stage and were the odds-on favorite to come out of the West.
However, their run came to an end just five games into the WCF, and at the hands of a foe that not many expected: the Dallas Stars. So, where did things go wrong for Vegas? Let's take a look.
Lack of scoring
We've got to start here. Vegas can be as dangerous and explosive as any team in the league offensively, but they just couldn't put numbers on the board in this series. Over the course of the five games, they scored five goals at 5v5 and eight total -- a pretty stunning lack of offensive production.
Granted, Dallas only scored six goals at 5v5 and nine total but that's expected from a team with a strong defensive identity that finished 26th in offense during the regular season.
The Golden Knights love to generate offense off the rush but Dallas played strong defensive hockey. Still... the offensive opportunities were there and Vegas largely failed to convert. They held a significant edge in attempts (311-228), shots (166-118), high-danger scoring chances (68-48) and expected goals (14.87-10.94), but the results weren't there. They shot just 4.8 percent and, again, only scored eight of those expected 14.8 goals.
It's a familiar story for Vegas -- a dominant possession team that doesn't always get the results they seem to deserve.
Of course, Vegas' offensive attack wasn't dealt any favors by one Anton Khudobin, the emerging hero between the pipes for Dallas. The 34-year-old Khudobin has essentially been a backup his entire career -- albeit one of the best backups in the league over the past few seasons -- but he's turning into a rock (a rock Star, if you will) this postseason.
He was at his best in this series against Vegas, stopping 153 of 161 shots against for a .950 save percentage and a 1.69 GAA. That includes a ridiculous .941 high-danger save percentage.
Khudobin will have to continue to be great if Dallas is to raise the Cup, especially if they face the high-powered Lightning in the Final. If he can do it for one more series, there's a good chance that we'll see him turn into an unlikely hero, but an unlikely Conn Smythe winner as well.
One of the marks of a true contender is an ability to shape-shift, adjust and win in different ways. Dallas got to the Western Conference by beating Colorado in a high-octane series that saw a total of 57 goals scored. In that series, the Stars did the unthinkable by out-gunning an explosive Colorado team, scoring five goals in each of their four wins.
In this series? There was never a game that exceeded five goals total.
The grind-it-out, defensive style of play that we saw in this West Final is more of the Stars' bread-and-butter and they're probably thankful they didn't have to run-and-gun with a team like Vegas. But the fact that Dallas has proven they can win against two seemingly superior opponents in drastically different ways is a credit not only to the makeup of that team, but to a coaching staff that is able to make adjustments and adapt to what's presented in front of them.
The Stars have gotten some really timely production from unexpected places this postseason (what's up, Joel Kiviranta?) but they're also a team that has been known to live and die by the production of the forwards at the top of their lineup. Jamie Benn has been plagued by consistency issues for a while, but he played like a man possessed down the stretch run of this series. He was the best skater on the ice, on either side.
Benn was the only player in the series to score more than once, and he found the back of the net in each of the Stars' final three games. He also added two assists to lead all players in points with five.
His third and final goal of the series was a huge one -- it got the Stars on the board halfway through the third period in Game 5 and gave them life.
As we've seen so many times this postseason, Dallas is very much a team that can be a nightmare to stop once they get rolling with a little momentum behind them. Benn provided that pulse in a closeout Game 5 and it sparked a dramatic comeback to send his team to the Stanley Cup Final.
Vegas only surrendered three power play goals in the series, but two of those three were the final two goals that the Stars scored -- the game-tying goal in the third period, then the series clincher in overtime. They played disciplined for the majority of the series but it goes without saying that you probably don't want to find yourself a man down when you're trying to hang on late in a potential elimination game -- especially when you're the better possession team at 5v5.
The overtime winner will be especially tough for Vegas to swallow considering it came after the Golden Knights' Zach Whitecloud got sent to the box for a puck-over-glass delay of game penalty. Coming up short was always going to sting for a team that was basically Stanley Cup-or-bust, but that's just some extra salt in the wound for Vegas.
The Golden Knights seeing their playoff hopes dashed after failing to deliver on the penalty kill? That doesn't sound right...