Depth players keeping Dallas alive versus Vegas
The Dallas Stars were one game away from being unceremoniously swept out of the Western Conference Finals. Now, they’re just two wins away from pulling off one of the most stunning upsets in recent NHL history.
How did we get to this point? There are, to be sure, several contributing factors.
Goaltender Jake Oettinger has seen a big performance rally in the past two games, outplaying Vegas netminder Adin Hill. High-scoring winger Jason Robertson returning to form – his five goals are most for any skater in the series – has also been a blessing for Peter DeBoer’s team. Dallas has also done an impressive job at protecting the interior and low slot against Vegas’ forwards, minimizing scoring chances.
But the most remarkable thing about this mini-comeback so far is that the Stars look very game at even strength, the core strength of this Golden Knights team. More specifically, DeBoer appears to have found something with the Thomas Harley - Joel Hanley defensive pairing.
When you think defence in Dallas, your attention is immediately drawn to superstar Miro Heiskanen. Understandably so! But Heiskanen – paired with veteran Ryan Suter – is locked in a very difficult matchup this series, with the Stars coaching staff rotating his top pairing against the Mark Stone and Jack Eichel lines. Over the course of the series, Dallas has been outscored 9-5 (-4) with Heiskanen on the ice in those tough minutes.
When your big guns are getting outscored in the playoffs, your lone hope is that you see a step-up in performance from other players across the lineup. And after five games, I think the quiet story of the series has been the play of Harley and Hanley, a very capable two-way pairing that has given Vegas fits over the course of the series.
Consider how the three Dallas defensive pairings have played over the course of the series just by the macro numbers:
Those are numbers you just do not see head-to-head against Vegas at even strength irrespective of usage rates.
They are an interesting match – Harley the hulking 21-year-old former first-round pick, Hanley an undersized journeyman who plays a very simple north-and-south game in his depth role. But they have had tremendous success against Vegas’ middle-six forwards, mostly because they are spending so little time in the defensive third.
The best way to combat the Vegas forecheck is to bottle them up inside of their defensive zone, and the Hanley and Harley pairing are doing that. Playing primarily with Radek Faksa’s line, the Hanley and Harley pairing has run up staggering shot differentials over the series, and that’s meant less opportunity for the Vegas attack across the board.
Vegas is a beatable team – their power play is frequently challenged, they can be mistake-prone, and their hyper-aggressive forecheck can leave them vulnerable during counterattacks. But one plot twist I did not expect to see was the Golden Knights coming under siege at even strength, which has where they have buttered their bread for so many years now.
Dallas is one of the few teams with the requisite depth to challenge each Vegas line and defensive pairing, and it’s not lost on me that, in a series where many of the Stars big guns have relatively disappointed, DeBoer’s team is still very much alive.
It’s a testament to the performance of some of their lesser skaters picking up a lot of the slack, and considering the three-game series deficit they were facing just a few days ago, it’s a feather-in-the-cap moment for a team that is unwilling to roll over.
So, kudos to the Stars for making this an interesting series. Now we will see if they can apply real pressure and win Game 6 on home ice Monday night.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference