These under-the-radar players could decide the Western Conference finals
- Ryan S. Clark is an NHL reporter for ESPN.
Now that the Western Conference finals between the Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights have finally arrived (Game 1, 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN+), there is a strong chance you’re going to hear a few familiar names.
If it’s a conversation about the Stars? Expect to hear a lot about Jamie Benn, Miro Heiskanen, Roope Hintz, Jake Oettinger, Joe Pavelski and Jason Robertson. When the discussion shifts to the Golden Knights, players like Jack Eichel, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Alex Pietrangelo, Chandler Stephenson and Shea Theodore will be hard to ignore.
An argument can also be had that Ivan Barbashev, Max Domi, Wyatt Johnston, Tyler Seguin, Reilly Smith and whoever starts in goal for the Golden Knights will get similar treatment.
But what about those under-the-radar players who could serve in key roles in which the winner gets a trip to the Stanley Cup Final and the loser starts summer vacation? Here’s a look at the players for the Golden Knights and the Stars who may not be among the first names mentioned, but their contributions could prove crucial to their respective teams’ success.
Evgenii Dadonov, F
Going into the trade deadline, a little more than 66% of the Stars’ goals came from six players. That’s what led to them trading for Domi and Dadonov. The fact Domi scored 18 goals and had 49 points in 60 games with the Chicago Blackhawks made him the focal points when compared to Dadonov, who arrived with four goals and 18 points in 50 games with the Montreal Canadiens. Dadonov had three goals and 12 assists after coming to Dallas, giving him 15 points in 23 games. In the postseason, his four goals and nine points in 13 games has given the Stars the depth they were seeking. Five of those points came in the second round, including the assist he had on Johnston’s game-winning goal in Game 7.
Then there’s the fact that Dadonov along with Benn and Johnston have logged the most 5-on-5 ice time of any Stars’ line combination in the postseason, according to Natural Stat Trick. They’ve played nearly 132 minutes together, which is 45 minutes more than the Hintz-Seguin-Robertson line has seen in 5-on-5 play. A pending unrestricted free agent, Dadonov is making a strong case for the Stars to re-sign him or why another team could seek his services. Especially if he can parlay his success into the conference finals against one of his former employers.
Thomas Harley, D
Drafting and developing homegrown talent is at the heart of the Stars’ success, and it’s another reason Harley’s performances are important. Just look at what he did in the second-round series victory against the Seattle Kraken. Harley went from scoring zero points in the first round against the Minnesota Wild to seven points in as many games versus the Kraken. His strongest performance came in Game 4 when he finished with a goal and an assist in the Stars’ 6-3 win to tie the series before going back to Dallas.
His seven points are the second-most of any Stars’ defenseman and just two behind Heiskanen. All of his points have come in 5-on-5 play with Harley serving as a third-pairing option. His production gives the Stars another layer and shows why they were not willing to part with him or any of their prospects ahead of the trade deadline. The internal belief within the Stars front office is they knew Harley could help them at some point in the playoffs. And so far? He’s doing just that.
Esa Lindell, D
A Finnish player having success with the Stars? Who knew? Lindell might only have two points, but he’s averaging more than 21 minutes per game which ranks third among Stars defensemen this postseason. He’s operating in a second-pairing role alongside fellow Finn Jani Hakanpää, who could also make a case for being one of those under-the-radar players who could have an impact in the conference finals.
Several factors have led to the Stars being four wins away from the Stanley Cup Final. Their penalty kill is one of those reasons. It’s the No. 3 short-handed unit in the postseason with an 83.3 success rate. Lindell leads them in short-handed ice time, with Hakanpää 20 seconds behind, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Vegas Golden Knights
Nicolas Hague and Zach Whitecloud, D
Everyone else gets a separate mention, so, why not Hague and Whitecloud? Simple. Because they’ve done nearly everything else together this postseason in a manner that most might have overlooked. The big one? Guess what defensive pairing has logged the most 5-on-5 ice time for the Golden Knights this postseason? Yeah, it’s them. In fact, Natural Stat Trick has them 10th among all defensive pairings in 5-on-5 ice time. Pietrangelo’s suspension played a part in why he and Alec Martinez don’t lead the team. Although, there is another statistic that reinforces the value of their partnership. Opponents have only scored three times in 5-on-5 play when Hague and Whitecloud have played together. That’s tied with Carolina Hurricanes duo Brent Burns and Jaccob Slavin for the fewest goals allowed this postseason among pairings with at least 150 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time. It’s another reason Hague leads them in 5-on-5 ice time while Whitecloud is third.
Brett Howden, F
Stephenson has emerged as one of the NHL’s premier No. 2 centers while Stone, when healthy, is a two-way winger who creates problems. Together, they have created one of the more versatile combinations in the league. Howden is the third member of that group, and has used these playoffs to justify his role as a top-nine winger. They played more than 67 minutes together in 5-on-5 ice time, according to Natural Stat Trick. But that also comes with the caveat Stone was limited to 43 games after having a second back surgery in less than a year. In the playoffs? Cassidy has used the Howden-Stephenson-Stone line more than any other combination, with the trio playing nearly 95 minutes together in 5-on-5 situations.
Howden has five points in 11 games, a strong return for a player who had 13 total points in 54 regular-season games. Howden was also part of the Golden Knights’ penalty kill, a role he has retained with the sixth-most short-handed minutes among Golden Knights forwards this postseason.
Nicolas Roy, F
Coaches are always making adjustments in an attempt to find an edge. Cassidy is no different and it’s why of the top eight combinations he’s used in the playoffs, Roy has been a part of three of them. Roy, who largely played in a bottom-six role this year, was part of the 12 players who finished with more than 10 regular-season goals.
A bottom-six forward with consecutive seasons of more than 14 goals shows why the Golden Knights are among the NHL’s deepest teams. When they use Roy at center, he gives them a spine down the middle that starts with Eichel, Stephenson and Karlsson before it ends with him. When they push him to the wing, he provides them with a third-line combination that also features Karlsson and Smith. Together, the three of them present the Golden Knights with a two-way line that can forecheck, force turnovers and create scoring chances in the other direction. Possessing that sort of versatility is also how Roy has worked his way into receiving minutes on the penalty kill and power play.
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