Pressure: The Dallas Stars must love it.
Down 2-0 to the Vegas Golden Knights, the Stars busted out an ultra-aggressive attack in Game 5 that led to a furious comeback, followed by an overtime winner by breakout playoff star Denis Gurianov. Now, the Stars have punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup final.
Whether it was the team's defensemen constantly jumping and pinching in the latter half of the third period or the forwards hounding the Golden Knights in the offensive zone, Dallas managed to break a Vegas team that seemed to have it all. And the circumstances surrounding the overtime winner only reinforced the point: veteran forward Andrew Cogliano pressured Golden Knights defenseman Zach Whitecloud into a puck-over-the-glass penalty and on the ensuing power play, Gurianov beat his man off the wall during an offensive zone faceoff, which eventually led to the young Russian's ninth goal of the post-season.
But it's also important to recognize the sacrifice the individual Stars have made in order to make this run happen. Tyler Seguin has been snakebitten, to be sure, but the top-line center is not simply two goals in 20 post-season games. Dallas has evolved into a defense-first team over the years precisely because they wanted to be tougher to play against in the post-season and Seguin's work on the other side of the puck has been obvious. And when the Stars have needed goals, they've found them.
"We always know it might take the whole game with us," Seguin said. "We're a confident group coming back in games so there's no panic, there's composure. We have key goals, big moments and everything is falling in our favor right now."
But of course you need heroes too and Gurianov certainly qualified in the series clincher. Here you have a 2015 first-rounder who took the slow path to the NHL, but that allowed him the development he needed to become a force in his rookie campaign. Along the way, he was part of an AHL Texas Stars team that went all the way to the Calder Cup final before falling to the Toronto Marlies and those experiences matter for a player finding his way as a pro. And by the sounds of it, Gurianov is built for this life. Seguin speaks of watching the 23-year-old put in the extra work in practice, honing a shot that came in handy in Game 5 against Vegas and constantly seeking hockey knowledge from those around him. Dallas' captain sees it, too.
"He's put in a lot of hard work and he has all the tools to be a great goal-scorer," said Jamie Benn. "Now you're seeing it."
What the rest of the NHL is seeing is a Dallas team that can no longer be underestimated. A team that had to replace coach Jim Montgomery midway through the season due to personal turmoil, only to have veteran Rick Bowness steer the club into a top-four seed in the Western Conference. A team that lost star goalie Ben Bishop to injury, only to find life in undersized veteran Anton Khudobin. And a team that learned to play defense, only to forget how to score goals, has now knocked off three of the league's best offensive playoff teams in Calgary, Colorado and Vegas. So how are they doing it?
"Belief, our depth, and what we've gone through as a group and over the years," Seguin said. "So much has happened and we just seem to rise to the occasion."
Now Dallas has a chance to win the franchise's second Cup title ever, though the final series will be just as much a challenge as anything they've faced so far. But at this point, would you bet against them?
"All the hard work we've been putting down to be where we are now - we're one series away from the Stanley Cup," said defenseman John Klingberg. "The videos, the workouts, the resilience we've shown, the ups and downs - it's all worth it. And we're not done yet."