Now that the Western Conference Finals between the Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights is finally here (Game 1, 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN+), there’s a good chance you’ll hear a few familiar names.
Is it a conversation about the stars? Expect a lot from 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.
It can also be argued that Ivan Barbashev, Max Domi, Wyatt Johnston, Tyler Seguin, Reilly Smith and whoever starts in goal for the Golden Knights will receive similar treatment.
But what about the under-the-radar players who could play a key role if the winner gets a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals and the loser goes on summer vacation? Here’s a look at the Golden Knights and Stars players who might not be among the first names mentioned, but whose contributions could prove crucial to the success of their respective teams.
Evgenii Dadonov, F
At the close of trading, just over 66% of the Stars’ goals came from six players. This led to them trading for Domi and Dadonov. The fact that Domi scored 18 goals and had 49 points in 60 games with the Chicago Blackhawks made him the center of attention compared to Dadonov, who had four goals and 18 points in 50 games with the Montreal Canadiens. Dadonov had three goals and 12 assists after moving to Dallas, giving him 15 points in 23 games. In the postseason, his four goals and nine points in 13 games gave the stars the depth they were looking for. Five of those points came in the second round, including the assist he had on Johnston’s game-winning goal in Game 7.
Add to that the fact that Dadonov, along with Benn and Johnston, has the most 5-on-5 ice time of any line combination by the Stars in the postseason, according to Natural Stat Trick. They played almost 132 minutes together, which is 45 minutes more than the Hintz-Seguin-Robertson line saw in 5v5 play. As an unrestricted free agent, Dadonov is at the door, making a strong case for the Stars re-signing him or why another team might enlist his services. Especially if he can bring his success to the conference finals against one of his former employers.
Thomas Harley, D
Attracting and developing local talent is at the heart of the Stars’ success and another reason why Harley’s accomplishments matter. Just look at what he did in the second-round win over the Seattle Kraken. Harley scored zero points in the first round against the Minnesota Wild and had seven points in as many games against the Kraken. His strongest performance came in Game 4 when he ended the Stars’ 6-3 win with a goal and an assist, ending the streak before returning to Dallas.
His seven points is the second most of any Stars defenseman and is just two behind Heiskanen. He scored all of his points in 5v5 play, with Harley serving as the third pairing. His production adds another dimension to the stars and shows why they weren’t ready to part ways with him or any of their prospects before the close. The internal belief in the Stars’ front office is that they knew Harley could eventually help them in the playoffs. And so far? He does just that.
Esa Lindell, D
A Finnish player thriving with the Stars? who knew Lindell may only have two points, but he’s averaging more than 21 minutes per game, ranking third among Stars defenders this postseason. He acts in the second pairing alongside fellow Finnish player Jani Hakanpää, who could also argue to be one of those under-the-radar players who could make an impact in the conference finals.
Several factors have put the Stars four wins away from the Stanley Cup Finals. Their penalty shootout is one of those reasons. With an 83.3 win rate, it is the #3 understaffed unit of the postseason. According to the Natural Stat Trick, Lindell leads her in the Shorthanded Ice Age, with Hakanpää trailing by 20 seconds.
Brett Howden has scored two goals in the postseason. Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images
Nicolas Hague and Zach Whitecloud, D
All others are mentioned separately, so why not Hague and Whitecloud too? Simply. Because they’ve done almost everything else together this postseason in ways most might have overlooked. The great? Guess which defensive pair has posted the most 5-on-5 ice time for the Golden Knights this postseason? yes they are In fact, thanks to Natural Stat Trick, they rank 10th out of all defensive pairings in 5v5 Ice Age. Pietrangelo’s suspension helped prevent him and Alec Martinez from leading the team. However, there is another statistic that underscores the value of their partnership. When Hague and Whitecloud played together, the opponents only scored three goals in the 5v5 game. That ties Carolina Hurricanes duo Brent Burns and Jaccob Slavin, who have scored the fewest goals among pairings with at least 150 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time this postseason. This is another reason why Hague leads them in 5v5 Ice Age while Whitecloud is third.
Brett Howden, F
Stephenson has developed into one of the NHL’s best No. 2 centers, while Stone, when healthy, is a troublesome two-way winger. Together they have created one of the most 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 9 winger. According to Natural Stat Trick, they played more than 67 minutes together in the 5v5 Ice Age. But that also comes with the caveat that Stone was limited to 43 games in less than a year after a second back surgery. In the playoffs? Cassidy used the Howden-Stephenson-Stone variation more than any other combination, with the trio playing 5-on-5s together for nearly 95 minutes.
Howden has five points in 11 games, a strong record for a player who has 13 points in 54 regular-season games. Howden was also part of the Golden Knights’ penalty shootouts, a role he has retained with the sixth most shorthanded minutes among Golden Knights forwards this postseason.
Nicolas Roy, F
Coaches are constantly making adjustments to find a head start. It’s no different with Cassidy, and that’s why Roy was involved in three of the top eight combinations he’s used in the playoffs. Roy, who played mostly in the last six games this year, was among 12 players to finish the regular season with more than 10 goals.
A forward who ranks in the bottom six and has 14+ goals in consecutive seasons shows why the Golden Knights are among the deepest teams in the NHL. When they put Roy in the middle, he gives them a backbone in the middle, starting with Eichel, Stephenson, and Karlsson before ending with him. As they push him onto the wing, he delivers them a combination from the third row, which also features Karlsson and Smith. Together, the three present the Golden Knights with a two-way line that can prevent, force turnovers and create scoring chances the other way. Thanks to that versatility, Roy has also managed to get minutes on penalties and the power play.