Sunday, May 21, 2023 | 2 a.m.
The Stars’ two most prominent defensemen collided. The Golden Knights’ most anonymous forward capitalized.
A third-period goal by Vegas’ Teddy Blueger Friday at T-Mobile Arena in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals was so poetic that it felt destined to wind up the game-winner in the Golden Knights’ 4-3 victory.
The midseason trade acquisition was playing in only his third postseason game with the Golden Knights after having mostly been a healthy scratch in the first two rounds. And yet the former member of the Pittsburgh Penguins scored a go-ahead goal with Stars’ All-Stars Miro Heiskanen and Ryan Suter tangled up helplessly beneath him, brought there mainly because of effort from fellow fourth-liner Keegan Kolesar.
It didn’t end up being the decisive moment, as the Golden Knights needed an overtime winner from fellow role player Brett Howden, but each of the final two tallies illuminated the same theme. It’s the Golden Knights’ depth that’s brought them this far, and it likely is going to be what’s needed to push them over the top to reach the second Stanley Cup Final in franchise history.
Game 2 of the series begins at 12:30 p.m. today on the Strip.
“Whoever is in can do the job,” Blueger said of the Golden Knights after the game. “We’ve got good players that can contribute up and down the lineup in different ways.”
It’s a minor miracle that Blueger didn’t use the phrase “rolling lines” — relying on every forward group in a near-equal capacity — after Vegas muttered it approximately 10,000 times over the first month of the playoffs. The cliché far surpassed “get pucks on the net” and “play our game” as the Golden Knights’ favorite idiom.
But that might have been partly, and perhaps even subconsciously, an understated insult to Vegas’ first two playoff opponents — the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers. Neither of the squads were much for “rolling lines,” as they relied on star-studded groups up front.
The Stars are more like the Golden Knights in that they’re depth driven. They won their first two series, against the Minnesota Wild and Seattle Kraken, by ultimately wearing down the opposition with nonstop waves of productive players.
So, in a sense, the Golden Knights and Stars have met their match in each other. Neither team will able to overwhelm the other with fresher legs constantly coming in.
It’s going to come down to which fresher sets of legs outwork the other, and in Game 1, it was the ones in gold and black over the ones in white and green.
“At the end of the day, I do believe there’s a balance in all four lines (on both teams),” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said before Game 1. “So that could work either way. That could be one thing you talk about that one team got caught up in or vice versa.”
Dallas got caught up on Friday. The Stars’ best forwards were better than the Golden Knights’ best forwards, as each of the visitors’ top three goal-scorers from the regular season — Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz and Jamie Benn — found the back of the net.
None of Vegas’ top seven goal-scorers from the regular season did the same. The Golden Knights’ top two lines were shut out in regulation, with William Karlsson the lone big name creating highlights with a pair of goals for the third group.
That scoring split would spell defeat for most teams this deep into the playoffs. Just not Vegas.
Consider Dallas coach Pete DeBoer unsurprised. It’s not much unlike the strategy he deployed over the previous three seasons behind the Golden Knights’ bench.
DeBoer wasn’t satisfied with his new team’s series-opening performance, but he was also far from panicked after coming back from Game 1 overtime losses in each of the first two rounds.
“Seattle had that type of team too and actually scored more than Vegas scores and we found ways during that series to shut them down,” DeBoer said. “We’ve got to find a way. We’ve got to be better than we were tonight is the bottom line.”
“The good news is, the other two (series) ended the right way so that’s what we’ll hope for.”
Howden ended Friday’s game 95 seconds into overtime when he recovered a pass he initially mishandled off the boards and fired it into the back of Dallas goalie Jake Oettinger’s skates and into the the goal. Maybe Howden was the more appropriate final hero, or at least one on par with Blueger.
The former New York Ranger was just as unknown as Blueger upon being traded to the Golden Knights before last season. He’s been an off and on contributor ever since but has really proven valuable to Vegas in these playoffs, most recently next to team captain Mark Stone.
Howden had never scored an overtime goal and hadn’t chipped in with a game-winner all season.
Stopping players like Howden and Blueger from having their moment is every bit as important for opponents as slowing Stone and Jack Eichel.
Dallas is best-equipped to do so out of every team Vegas has seen in the playoffs to this point, but it’s off to an 0-for-1 start.
So far, Vegas is outrolling them.
“I think that’s the coolest thing about our team, that we have so much depth up front and on the back end and obviously in goaltending too,” Howden said. “I just think we have a really deep team and can really roll our lines however we want on any given night.”
Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or