Stars first Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 20 Years

They changed their coach in the middle of the season and named a guy who hadn’t been a head coach for 16 years.

They are riding their No. 2 goalie who never started a playoff game before this season.

They are getting more goals from a minor league call-up than from their regular season leading scorer.

And yet the Dallas Stars are going to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Stars on Monday got a huge goal from Joel Kiviranta (his fourth of the playoffs), 34 saves from goalie Anton Khudobin to match his age, and big performances from pretty much every player in the lineup to beat the Vegas Golden Knights, 3-2 in overtime in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final.

The win clinched a series win for a team that is the first since St. Louis in 1968 to have a negative goal differential in the playoffs and still make it to the Cup Final. Led by 65-year-old coach Rick Bowness, the Stars have been incredibly resilient and incredibly poised in close games — going 10-1 in one-goal games and 5-0 in the playoffs.

“This year, there’s just been so much stuff that happened to us that we always seem to rise to the occasion, and because of those experiences as a group, we have that confidence, that composure and that ability to get the job done when we need it most,” said center Tyler Seguin, who has just two goals among eight points in 20 playoff games, but continues to be a huge player in other areas.

“We always know that it might take the whole game,” Seguin said. “With us, we’re a confident group going into the third period, coming back from games. There’s no panic. There’s composure, just knowing that we’re going to get the job done.”

Game 5 was a perfect example of the entire playoffs.

Vegas had a 36-26 advantage in shots on goal and controlled a good deal of the early play. The Golden Knights were down 3-1 in the series so they had to be desperate and when they went up 2-0 in the game early in the third period, it seemed they were on their way to forcing a Game 6.

But Dallas chipped away and Jamie Benn fought to get to the front of the net midway through the third period. Benn banged in a rebound for his eighth goal of the playoffs and the deficit was one goal with 10 minutes remaining.

Dallas then earned a tripping penalty with just over five minutes left in the third period. A power play that had struggled earlier in the game, worked the puck to the front of the net, and Kiviranta came up with a huge rebound goal to tie the game.

Kiviranta was a “black ace” — one of the reserves who was not skating regularly with the NHL lineup — for much of the playoffs. But he came into Game 7 against Colorado because of an injury to Andrew Cogliano and tallied a hat trick. That has earned him a place in the lineup, and he made it pay off in Game 5.

Kiviranta’s goal forced overtime, and a hard forecheck helped force Vegas defenseman Zach Whitecloud to chip a puck out of play just two minutes in, sending Dallas back to the power play. Bowness had juggled John Klingberg to the second unit, and Klingberg assisted not only on the Kiviranta goal, but also on the game-winner. The veteran defenseman smoothly moved the puck to Denis Gurianov in the right circle, and Gurianov powered home his ninth goal of the playoffs, sending the Stars to the Cup Final for the first time since 2000.

“It’s an unreal feeling, obviously,” Klingberg said. “All the hard work we’ve been putting down to be where we are right now, we’re one series away from the Stanley Cup. It’s all the hard work you put down, videos, workouts, the ups and downs we’ve been going through, it’s all worth it. We’re there now.”

For Bowness, the celebration on the bench showed tangible elation. Even when the team is in the Edmonton bubble at Rogers Place with no fans in the building, Bowness said the feeling was amazing. Bowness took over in December when the Stars had to fire coach Jim Montgomery. He last was a head coach with Phoenix in 2004, and has had to adjust to a lot of challenges this season.

Getting this team to this place is an incredible accomplishment.

“When you’re behind the bench and you see the puck go in and you know you’re going to the Stanley Cup Finals, words can’t describe the emotion that comes through,” Bowness said. “Anytime you get here, people are paying an awful price. You need to be rewarded and we got rewarded tonight. It’s so rare to get to the Finals, man, you’ve got to enjoy every minute of it.”

The Stars seem to be doing just that. Khudobin is shocking the world as he continues to frustrate some fantastic offensive players. Gurianov is a rookie, yet he led the Stars in regular season goal scoring with 20 and leads them in playoff goal scoring with nine. Kiviranta continues to allow the team to handle injuries to forwards like Cogliano and Radek Faksa, and not miss a beat.

And guys like Benn and Seguin and Klingberg get to take a franchise to a place they have been chasing for seven years or more.

“It says a lot about our group,” said Benn, who has been with the team since 2009 and was named captain in 2013. “Sometimes, it doesn’t always go your way in the first couple of periods, but we stuck with it, and once again Dobby kept us in it as a long as we needed, and we found a way to get it done.”

The Stars know they have another step to go. Tampa Bay leads the Islanders, 3-1, in the Eastern Conference Final and the two teams play Game 5 Tuesday. Whoever Dallas faces, the Stars say they will be ready.

“Our only goal since training camp is to win the Stanley Cup,” said Bowness. “That hasn’t changed.”

No matter how unique the path might seem, the belief that they can do something historic remains.

“It’s been a crazy year, right from the start, but we’ve stuck together as a group, and played some fun hockey,” said Benn. “We find ways to win right now, and that’s all that matters.”

Courtesy: Dallas Stars