Lun. May 27th, 2024

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Two of the NHL’s heavyweights were matched up in the first round of the 2024 Stanley Cup playoffs, and the series between the Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights has been the most impressive of the bracket thus far.

To no one’s surprise, the two clubs have reached Game 7 (7:30 p.m. ET, TBS), with a matchup against the Colorado Avalanche waiting for the victor.

Which players will be most critical to their team’s success? And who will win the game?

Who is the one key player you’ll be watching for the Stars?

Ryan S. Clark, NHL reporter: Jake Oettinger. The biggest question facing Oettinger at this moment is: What more does this man need to do to help the Stars reach the second round? The answer might be a shutout, given the tight margins of this series.

His lowest save percentage since Game 1 has been .920, and that came in that 3-1 loss in Game 2. But since then, Oettinger has posted an overall save percentage of .944, including a .960 in a Game 6 loss. Getting goals from depth portions of the lineup will certainly help his cause, but the fact that he nearly literally has to be perfect says so much about a series that’s been separated by so little.

Victoria Matiash, NHL analyst: Oettinger. The Stars’ starting netminder, after allowing one goal on 29 shots in Friday’s Game 6 loss: «I feel like [if] I play like that on Sunday, we’re going to win.»

Hard to argue! Growing sharper game by game against Vegas, Oettinger appears primed to put in his stingiest performance yet. If so, he’s likely right about Dallas escaping this ultimate series throwdown with the victory.

Arda Öcal, NHL broadcaster: Jason Robertson. He needs a strong Game 7 for Dallas to pull it out. He’s been scoring — three goals and two assists in six games — but he’s also minus-4. In Game 3 he connected well with rising scorer Wyatt Johnston — including on the overtime winner.

These are the games for which superstars must rise up. Robo had 18 points in 19 playoff games last season. I’m looking for him to show up and show out in Game 7.

Kristen Shilton, NHL reporter: Roope Hintz. It’s hard to fathom Hintz has scored just one goal in the postseason, and has looked far from the difference-making center he’d been throughout the regular season. There is no time like the present for Hintz to find his form.

Given how Hintz’s entire line with Joe Pavelski and Robertson has struggled at times in the series, it won’t be a singular effort from Hintz putting them back on track. But after watching Game 6 and seeing how quickly Vegas can jump on an opponent, it’s now or never for Hintz to match the Golden Knights’ intensity. If he helps set a tone there, it might lift his linemates and put the Stars on a winning trajectory toward the second round.

Greg Wyshynski, NHL reporter: Joe Pavelski. I realize Pavs is 39 years old. I realize that he has gone scoreless in this series — he hasn’t scored against Vegas in the past seven playoff games overall — and is shotless in his past three games. I realize his line with Hintz and Robertson was cratered at 5-on-5 in Game 6 (minus-7 in shot attempts).

But in a series this close, with a goalie on the other side as seemingly locked in as Adin Hill, this is traditionally Pavelski Time. A time when pucks shot from the point bounce off of his various extremities and into the net. He’s one of the postseason’s preeminent «old guys without a Cup.» It’s time for him to help Dallas take one step closer to raising it.


Who is the one key player you’ll be watching for the Golden Knights?

Clark: Jonathan Marchessault. For all we know, there’s a chance this could be the last time we see him in a Golden Knights sweater. The reigning Conn Smythe winner is a pending unrestricted free agent who had four points in the first four games of the series, but was held without a point in the past two contests.

He’s been active, as evidenced by the 17 shots he has recorded. But when we think about what made the Golden Knights so formidable last year, it was having players who could be trusted in some of the most difficult situations. Marchessault was at the top of that list, and it appears he could be again in Game 7.

Matiash: Jack Eichel. Serving as a key factor early for the Knights, Eichel scored three goals and three assists through the first four games of this playoff set. Since then, one helper and five shots total in the past two. A productively clutch performance from Marchessault’s linemate — who led his club with 1.08 points per game this regular season — would go a long way in swinging matters in Vegas’s favor.

Öcal: Noah Hanifin. He has two game-winning goals this series, including in Game 6. We all know that depth wins games, series and Stanley Cups; but it helps when your stars shine the brightest. Other than a challenging Game 3, he’s been pretty good in this series, and if Hanifin has another game where he can provide a spark, and even points (he has five this series), that bodes well for VGK.

Shilton: Ivan Barbashev. Think back to the playoffs last year, when Barbashev had seven goals and 18 points in 22 games. The fact that he has just four assists in this series so far — but has been generating some terrific chances — suggests Barbashev could be on the cusp of a breakout.

Game 7 is when everything is on the line. Top lines might be neutralized. It’s a team’s depth that can swing an outcome, and Barbashev is poised to be that guy for Vegas. He has the skill and history in his favor. Now it’s just about executing again, and finding his moment to truly impact Vegas on the score sheet.

Wyshynski: Adin Hill. After Logan Thompson started the first three games of the series, Hill comes strolling in with his hockey bag and says «Hey, I heard you needed a goalie who could post a .938 save percentage and a 1.52 goals-against average and pitch a shutout while facing elimination?»

Adin Hill is doing the Adin Hill thing again. In his past 18 playoff games, Hill has a .933 save percentage and a 2.09 goals-against average. In his past 62 regular-season games, he has a .912 save percentage and a 2.62 GAA. There’s an alchemy between the way he plays and the way the Knights play in front of him in the playoffs. He’s already on the way to being their postseason goaltending savior — again.


The final score will be _____.

Clark: 1-0 Stars in OT. Here’s the reality of this series. Neither team allows that much offensively. But that’s what happens when one team is trying to win a consecutive Stanley Cup and the other has constructed a roster that’s built to reach the Cup Final after reaching the Western Conference finals last season.

It amounts to two teams that thrive from capitalizing on mistakes, and Game 7 will be decided by which one makes the most costly miscue.

Matiash: 3-2 Stars. After a cautious, tentative and tight first period, both sides will loosen up and provide us with a more entertaining affair similar to the Stars’ victory in Game 5. Only this time, Pavelski — Greg is bang-on about this being «Pavelski Time» — scores the game winner instead of Robertson.

Öcal: 2-1 Stars in OT. Low-scoring series, both teams incredibly stacked, won’t want to make any mistakes in Game 7, tight checking. I would have picked 1-0, honestly, if Ryan hadn’t already. But this one feels like an instant-classic OT thriller.

Shilton: 4-3 Stars. Despite some tight games earlier in the series, this one feels like a game that will be wide open from the start. But Dallas has been the better team overall, and that should carry it through to one more victory. Vegas won’t make it easy, though, and the Stars will have to channel their defensive habits (which have been especially good at home) to keep the Golden Knights’ stars from running wild. In the end, all those margins will be slim, but Dallas has the fortitude to outlast Vegas’ attack.

Wyshynski: 3-1 Stars. The Golden Knights played their most complete game of the series in Game 6, and it was still a one-bounce game until Mark Stone’s empty-netter.

Dallas has played better defensively on home ice in this series (1.97 expected goals against at 5-on-5) than on the road (2.33). They’re going to get the matchups they want with home-ice advantage. That Game 6 loss was more disappointing than debilitating. Coach Pete DeBoer is 7-0 in Game 7. He’ll have the Stars confident and ready for their moment. The Stars will break an intense 1-1 game with a goal midway through the third period, and Hintz will ice it with an empty-netter to advance.

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