After a season full of ups and downs, the Dallas Stars have now found themselves in the Stanley Cup Final. Despite finishing fourth in the Western Conference, many seemed to underestimate the Stars every step of the way since the beginning of the 2019-20 season. Dallas needed many things to go right to get where it is, so let's take a look at how the club turned a season that started 1-7-1 into a potential championship-winning year.
The Stars' season started almost as poorly as possible. They managed just one win in their opening nine games and were outscored 30-17. After the team suffered its eighth loss in nine matchups, goaltender Anton Khudobin put it as bluntly as possible: "What else can you say? We just got another L, f-----g, I don't know," he said, according to Dallas News' Matthew DeFranks. "We just have to keep going and do something."
Dallas picked things up and came back to earth after the tumultuous start. The Stars were chugging along nicely, but then things got shaken up when head coach Jim Montgomery was fired in December due to unprofessional conduct. Assistant coach Rick Bowness stepped in to take over bench duties.
Under Bowness, the Stars went 20-13-5 - including losing six straight before the season paused on March 12. During Bowness' tenure, Dallas ranked 25th in the league with 69.37 expected goals for at five-on-five and 17th with a 49.34 Corsi For %.
Despite not having a fast-paced, high-octane team like some of the other Cup favorites, the Stars still managed to play their way to one of the NHL's best records.
The Stars finished the 2019-20 regular season with the third-lowest goals scored in the NHL (178). On the flip side, they allowed the second-lowest goals against (174). While their offense wasn't necessarily clicking at their usual rate, their superb defensive play and goaltending were able to offset that issue.
Rookie Denis Gurianov led the team with 20 goals during the season, followed by Jamie Benn and Roope Hintz with 19 apiece. Tyler Seguin was at the top for points with 50 but managed just 17 goals - his lowest since 2012. With $32.6 million tied up between Alexander Radulov, Joe Pavelski, Seguin, and Benn, the Stars surely hoped to get more than 65 goals combined between the four.
With such little offensive firepower, Dallas needed to step up big time in its defensive play. Khudobin and Ben Bishop combined to create one of the best goaltending tandems. Khudobin even finished the season with the league's best save percentage among qualified goaltenders. The team in front of them undoubtedly helped out, allowing the fifth-lowest high-danger scoring chances against (404).
The Stars didn't look impressive during the 2020 postseason's round-robin. They dropped two out of three games and were outscored 10-5. Dallas looked ready for another early exit from the playoffs after losing two of the first three contests against the Calgary Flames in Round 1. With the team's back against the wall, they flipped a switch and turned on the jets.
The Stars went on to win three straight against the Flames, outscoring them 14-8 in the process. Their second-round matchup was against the Colorado Avalanche, who many touted as a heavy Cup favorite. Dallas went up 3-1 in the series but didn't end up securing the win until Game 7's overtime. The Stars ended up getting outscored 29-28 in the series. They're now the first team since 1968 to enter the Stanley Cup Final with a negative goal differential in the playoffs, according to Sportsnet Stats.
Dallas faced another tough task in the third round, going up against the mighty Vegas Golden Knights. Despite being outplayed for the majority of the series, the Stars surprisingly took down the Golden Knights in five games. They were outshot in four out of five contests and 166-118 overall, but Khudobin stood tall and helped the Stars advance to their first Cup Final since 2000 thanks to his incredible .950 save percentage in the series.
Dallas' special teams showed up against Vegas, clicking at 23.1% on the power play and 86.4% on the penalty kill. These are both up from their regular-season average and were a big part of why the Stars were able to dispose of Vegas so quickly.
The 34-year-old Khudobin has played some of the best hockey of his career with Bishop out for most of the postseason. Khudobin has played in 19 games in these playoffs, compiling a 12-6-0 record alongside a .920 save percentage. The netminder has been extremely busy at all strengths as he leads the league this postseason in expected goals against (50.33) and high-danger save percentage (.871).
The Stars made a few minor additions to their lineup for this season, and they've paid off big time. During the offseason, they brought in two veterans with lots of playoff experience in Pavelski and Corey Perry, both playing pivotal roles during the playoffs. They also added blue-liner Andrej Sekera, who has filled in nicely on the team's third defensive pairing.
General manager Jim Nill showed a huge vow of confidence in Pavelski by signing the then-35-year-old to a three-year, $21 million deal. Pavelski is tied for the team-lead with nine goals in the playoffs, and he's been one of the club's best players. Perry has contributed just six points, but he's been great in a bottom-six role.
(Analytics courtesy: Natural Stat Trick)