Conference Finals are all set: Stars punch their ticket

Last night, the only Game 7 was played to conclude the second round. In what proved to be the best series, the Stars withstood the Kraken by hanging on for a 2-1 win at American Airlines Center.

It wrapped up a second round that saw two of three teams finish off their opponents in five games. Both the Hurricanes and Panthers advanced to the Eastern Conference Final that begins this Thursday. Carolina defeated the Devils in five on Jesper Fast’s goal in overtime. Florida ousted the Maple Leafs in five on a goal from Nick Cousins in sudden death.

A night prior to the Stars’ one-goal win over the pesky Kraken, the Golden Knights finished off the Oilers with a convincing 5-2 victory in Game 6 at Rogers Place. Original Knights Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, and William Karlsson accounted for all five goals, highlighted by a natural hat trick for Marchessault. He recorded the first natural hat trick in Vegas history.

Following goals from Connor McDavid and Warren Foegle that put the Oilers ahead by one, the Golden Knights responded by getting the last four goals of the game to silence the Edmonton crowd. Marchessault scored all three goals in a dominant second period. Two came on rebounds, and the final one was a wrist shot during a four-on-four.

Adin Hill made a dozen of his 38 saves in the third period to improve to 3-1 with a 2.19 GAA and .934 save percentage since replacing the injured Laurent Brossoit. The Knights defended well in front of him by limiting the Oilers to mostly the perimeter. That frustrated both McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who went a minus-four without a point in the Oilers’ final game.

After the Knights advanced to their fourth Stanley Cup Semifinal in six years as a franchise, the Stars had the pressure of a deciding seventh game against the Kraken on home ice. In an exciting series where each team took turns playing well, Dallas overcame Seattle, who chased starter Jake Oettinger in a 6-3 win at Climate Pledge Arena on Saturday. The Kraken gave their fans plenty of reasons to be excited during their first postseason. Their future is bright.

Faced with a do or die scenario, the Stars saved their best for last. Playing a complete game that saw them the aggressors throughout, they eventually were able to strike first on a sharp Philipp Grubauer thanks to a great individual effort from leading scorer Roope Hintz.

With the game scoreless, Hintz seized the moment. On a misplay by Kraken defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, he stole the puck to break in on Grubauer and beat him high for an unassisted goal with 4:01 left in the second period. That gave him seven points in the series. They all came in wins. Hintz is up to 19 points for the playoffs. That trails only McDavid by a point. If he keeps this up, the gifted top center will be a candidate for the Conn Smythe.

After holding the Kraken to six shots in the second period to make life easier on Oettinger, who looked calmer than Game 6, the Stars continued to play well defensively. They made it hard for Seattle to get clean looks. Most of their eight shots in the third were from the outside. Oettinger handled those with ease.

On some good hustle to negate an icing, rookie Wyatt Johnston retrieved a long Evgenii Dadonov pass to cut in and sneak a backhand just off of Grubauer and in for a crucial second goal that gave the Stars a two-goal lead with 7:12 remaining.

With the Kraken having trouble getting through the stingy Stars defense, Grubauer was eventually lifted by Dave Hakstol with less than four minutes left. They played six-on-five for a while. However, the Stars continued to do a good job protecting the two-goal lead.

As it turned out, the Kraken were finally able to score with just under 19 seconds remaining to make it a one-goal game. On a good face-off win by Yanni Gourde, the puck came to Oliver Bjorkstrand in front. He went to the backhand to beat Oettinger to make things interesting.

A quick shot in on Oettinger got the Kraken one last face-off with over nine seconds to go. He made one final save before the puck was cleared to the corner as the buzzer sounded. The Stars finally celebrated after holding on for a hard fought 2-1 win to take Game 7 before a pumped up home crowd.

Next up are the Golden Knights. The West’s top seed proved they were a better team than trendy pick Edmonton. Getting strong play from leading scorer Jack Eichel, captain Mark Stone, and solid defense from a core that includes Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo, they’re a good overall team capable of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. They made it during their inaugural season under Gerard Gallant. A few players remain, including Marchessault, Karlsson, Smith, Theodore, William Carrier, and BraydenMcNabb. Zach Whitecloud played in one game that season.

It was in 2020 during the bubble that both the Stars and Knights made the Final Four. Dallas advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals by defeating the Golden Knights in five games. They lost to the Lightning in six. Many players remain from that roster, including Jamie Benn, Miro Heiskanen, Joe Pavelski, Roope Hintz, Tyler Seguin, Radek Faksa, Joel Kiviranta, Esa Lindell, and then rookies Thomas Harley and Jake Oettinger. Now, both play key roles. Harley has provided offense from the back end. Oettinger went from being the third stringer to the number one goalie.

If there is a difference, it’s that the Stars are now coached by Peter DeBoer. He improved to a perfect 7-0 in Game 7’s. Vegas is now coached by Bruce Cassidy. Both are proven bench bosses. DeBoer guided the 2011-12 Devils to the Stanley Cup Finals. They lost to the Kings. He also took the 2015-16 Sharks to the Finals. But they fell to the Penguins. Cassidy coached the 2018-19 Bruins to the Cup Finals before they lost in seven to the Blues. One coach will get another chance at winning the Cup.

Vegas is led by Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, Chandler Stephenson, along with aforementioned originals Marchessault, Karlsson, and Smith. They are deep on the back end due to Shea Theodore, Alex Pietrangelo, Nicolas Hague, Zach Whitecloud, Brayden McNabb, and Alec Martinez. Ivan Barbashev has been a good addition. They will have home ice. The Western Conference Final starts on Friday.

When the Hurricanes host the Panthers, it’ll be on Thursday night. A battle of old Southeastern rivals is an intriguing match-up. It’s never happened before. This is the Panthers’ first appearance in the Conference Finals since 1996 when they made a run to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Hurricanes are back for the first time since 2019. They’ll look to make their first Finals since winning it all in 2006.

The series pits two of the game’s best coaches against each other. Rod Brind’Amour has gone from a successful career that probably merits Hockey Hall Of Fame status to a very good bench boss in Raleigh. He has gotten his team to buy into the strong skating, puck possession style that includes diligent checking in the neutral zone.

Even without Andrei Svechnikov, Max Pacioretty, and Teuvo Teravainen, who’s hoping to return from a broken hand, suffered in the first round against the Islanders, the Canes have been excellent in eliminating the Isles and Devils the first two rounds. Their five-on-five play and strong penalty kill are the backbones of the team. They love to create turnovers to fuel their transition.

Carolina has strong center depth thanks to Sebastian Aho, Jordan Staal, emerging star Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and the veteran duo of Paul Stastny and Derek Stepan. They score by committee with second round standout Jordan Martinook delivering along with Jesper Fast. Martin Necas and Seth Jarvis are key forwards. The blue line contributes due to Jaccob Slavin, Brent Burns, Brady Skjei, and Brett Pesce.

It’ll be Frederik Andersen in goal. If he’s feeling better, Antti Raanta will back up. If not, future starter Pyotr Kochetkov will.

The Panthers are coached by the very experienced Paul Maurice. After barely squeaking into the playoffs, he didn’t panic in the first round when his team fell behind three games to one against the heavily favored Bruins. Instead, they survived by taking a very close Game 5 in overtime. Then came back to win Games 6 and 7.

Carter Verhaeghe won the series in dramatic fashion to upset the Bruins in overtime. He’s been one of the best performers all season. Always underrated, he posted a career high 42 goals and 73 points. He’s followed that up with 5-7-12 in two rounds. Matthew Tkachuk took apart Boston with a dominant five goal, 11-point performance. The Hart Trophy finalist had five assists against Toronto in the second round. A player who makes his living in front, he should be a handful for the Hurricanes.

Florida boasts strong centers led by captain Aleksander Barkov. Although he only has two goals with seven helpers, the tremendous two-way pivot can match up against anyone. Sam Bennett sticks his nose in and makes things happen with physicality. Anton Lundell centers a strong third line that features Sam Reinhart and Eetu Luostarinen. Anthony Duclair plays with Barkov and Verhaeghe, while second round hero Nick Cousins works with Bennett and Tkachuk. Eric Staal has provided energy on the fourth line. Ryan Lomberg will be available for this round.

Brandon Montour has been a star this postseason. His six goals pace all defensemen. Most have been clutch. While he’s been a key offensive star due to his heavy shot, Montour doesn’t get enough credit for how hard he comes back. He’s been the anchor of a blue line featuring Aaron Ekblad, Gustav Forsling, Marc Staal, and Radko Gudas. They log most of the key minutes with Staal still proving to be dependable at five-on-five. Gudas made the key defensive play that led to Cousins’ winner.

After falling behind Alex Lyon, whose brilliant play down the stretch got the Cats in the playoffs, Sergei Bobrovsky has reclaimed the net by standing tall. He was especially good against Toronto, not allowing more than two goals in each game. The proud 34-year-old veteran has been at his best, making crucial saves. Now, he’ll be asked to backstop the Panthers past the Hurricanes in a battle of vets.

When assessing the Conference Finals, both match-ups are intriguing. Out West, you have a rematch of 2020. Of course, both rosters have changed. There are still plenty of holdovers. The Stars boast ageless wonder Joe Pavelski, captain Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Miro Heiskanen, Esa Lindell, Joel Kiviranta, along with key scorer Jason Robertson. He’ll need to be better after going without a goal last round.

You have star power on each side. Roope Hintz against Jack Eichel. Miro Heiskanen against Alex Pietrangelo. The uniqueness of Pavelski against Mark Stone. Even the coaching match-up is fascinating. DeBoer goes up against his old team. He did that once before when he led the Devils past the Panthers in the first round back in 2012. That team made the Finals.

Both the Panthers and Hurricanes play with speed and tenacity. Carolina is a bit more defensive minded while Florida plys an aggressive forecheck. Whoever can dictate the terms should have the edge. Neither are great on the power play. Perhaps whichever team can win the special teams battle will prevail. It has the makings of a long series.

I’ve seen plenty of complaints from former players such as Andrew Raycroft and even a few media members over the remaining four participants. That’s hogwash. When it comes to growing the game, it’s good to have a few new teams competing for the Cup. Maybe it won’t be a ratings bonanza due to not having major markets. However, the diehards will watch.

In case they didn’t already realize, it isn’t the 60’s, 70s, or 80’s anymore. Maybe they should be more critical of those big markets, including Toronto, for still being unable to find the right mix to reach this round. Stop crying.

I can’t speak for anyone else. But I’ll enjoy the Conference Finals. Perhaps the teams that went home earlier than expected, like the Rangers, can open their eyes. Well-balanced teams are vying for the hardest trophy in sports. They earned it.


About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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