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Stars shining brightly

The Dallas Stars, by all accounts, were not supposed to be here.

Think back before the NHL season paused due to COVID-19. The Stars couldn’t figure out how to score. Dallas lost six in a row and scored three goals in those final four games. Then the pause happened and the Stars found their way into the fourth-best points percentage in the Western Conference.

That would lead to a spot in the round-robin, which Dallas also did not look good in. The Stars lost the first two games; their only win was a shootout victory against the St. Louis Blues. Even in those three games, Dallas scored a total of four regulation goals.

You tell me if that sounds like a team that would make the Stanley Cup Final.

From the moment the Stars trailed 2-1 in their first-round series against the Calgary Flames, something woke them. The offensive firepower that they had been toting around and not utilizing correctly woke up. Dallas would score 42 goals in its next 10 games, leading to a six-game series victory over the Flames and a stunning seven-game clincher in the second round against the Colorado Avalanche.

And yet, if that weren’t surprising enough, the Stars got the Vegas Golden Knights in the conference final. Everything aligned perfectly for Vegas; it was going to be the most difficult goaltending matchup Dallas had faced, the Stars would have to also contain an offense that scored 51 goals in 15 playoff games.

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Instead, the Stars held the Golden Knights to eight total goals. The Stars, for the entire series, scored nine. The Golden Knights were 10 minutes away from forcing a Game 6 on Wednesday night, but for the third game in a row, Stars captain Jamie Benn willed his team and made sure Dallas would not play another game.

Dallas coach Rick Bowness did not like the way his offense was rolling after Game 2, a 3-0 loss to Vegas to even the series. In Game 3, he put back together his top line of Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov.

This columnist feels like a fool for not putting Benn in the Conn Smythe rankings last week just because I didn’t think Benn would find his offense in time for the conference final. The minute Bowness put back the top line, Benn went to work. He scored a goal in the final three games; a go-ahead goal in Game 3, the winning goal in Game 4, and the goal in Game 5 that sparked Dallas’ third-period comeback.

If the Stars end up winning the Stanley Cup, the captain will surely be in the conversation, and he’ll likely deserve it.

We can spend days on end before the Stanley Cup Final on whether or not the Stars deserve to be here. When the return to play plan happened, there were 24 teams that had a realistic shot. There were 12 seeds eliminating five seeds in the qualifying round, teams who had no business being in the field of 16 but were given a chance, much like the Stars despite a rocky start in the round robin.

Even with their top goaltender, Ben Bishop, unfit to play, Anton Khudobin has stepped in to be a rock for Dallas. Miro Heiskanen is becoming a top-three defenseman before our eyes. The Stars have young talent that can be stars one day in Roope Hintz and Joel Kiviranta. They are a team that is playing like the collective unit we’ve all waited for.

And as a result, Dallas is back in the Cup Final for the first time in 20 years. It’s been a rough go for Stars fans the past two decades, but much like Dallas’ run to the final, the Stars have a chance now. And no matter if it’s the Tampa Bay Lightning or the New York Islanders, that’s all you can ask for.

The Stars shouldn’t be here, but they are. Good luck trying to convince me they can’t hoist the Stanley Cup in the next week-and-a-half.

Thursday

Lightning vs. Islanders: I’m not even sure this will reach a Game 6 but in the event that it does, this sounds like the time where Tampa Bay will end the series. The Islanders showed fight in Game 3 before the healthy Tampa team returned to form.

If New York can extend their season by one more day, that’s a great fight for Barry Trotz’s team. I just don’t see it. Get ready for what should be a fun Tampa Bay-Dallas Stanley Cup Final. LIGHTNING

Last week: 0-1

Season: 40-40