Stars, Golden Knights delivering the drama in best first-round series of the playoffs

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LAS VEGAS — In a first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in which two series are already over and five more are on the brink of ending through only five games, the Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars are delivering the drama.

Dallas ground out another close, 4-2 win Monday night in Vegas to tie the series 2-2. Through four games, the Stars and Golden Knights have traded board-rattling hits, sensational saves and series-changing goals, all before a team has won a game on its home ice.

It’s a rematch from last year’s Western Conference finals, pitting two of the league’s juggernauts and Cup favorites against each other right off the bat, and thus far it has lived up to the hype. Asked whether this first-round series feels like one much deeper in the postseason, Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault quickly replied, “One hundred percent.”

“This is as hard as it can get,” Marchessault continued. “Last year was the same thing. This is two good teams in the West going at it right off the bat. It’s going to be a battle, for sure.”

The series has given us everything a hockey fan hopes for in the playoffs, and it might still have a long way to go. All four games have come down to the wire, with the teams separated by only one goal each night (aside from two late empty-net goals). They battled through an overtime thriller Saturday night in Las Vegas.

“It’s two really good teams going at it,” said Stars forward Ty Dellandrea, who had a swollen bump underneath his right eye after scoring the game-winning goal Monday night on a shot that deflected off his body in the crease. “We’ve been going back and forth. It’s playoff hockey. It’s exciting. It’s just a great, great series.”

Many teams would’ve crumbled after losing two straight home games to the defending Cup champions to begin a postseason, but this talented Stars squad responded with its best hockey.

Only four games in, the physicality of this series is already testing the depth of both sides. Vegas is without defenseman Nicolas Hague after he went out in Game 1, but veteran blueliner Alec Martinez has filled in well. Dellandrea was a healthy scratch at the start of the series, but after multiple injuries, he jumped into the lineup and delivered for Dallas.

“That depth has been great, and you can feel it,” Stars coach Peter DeBoer said. “It’s contagious to our group. Those guys are really driving a lot of plays for us, so they’ve been fantastic.”

Dellandrea wasn’t the only Star to score from around the crease Monday. Wyatt Johnston scored his third goal of the playoffs on a rebound from right in front of the Vegas net. As is usually the case this time of year, the team that has controlled that area of the ice has come out on top.

“In the playoffs, it’s not about tic-tac-toe (passing); it’s about getting to the dirty areas,” Marchessault said. “Maybe we can steal a page out of their book and do a little more of that.”

Even in a well-defended series in which open ice and time to make plays are incredibly hard to come by, the most talented players on each side have still found ways to deliver.

Jack Eichel was the best player for much of Monday’s contest, transporting the puck up and down the ice with ease, and scored his third goal of the playoffs to put Vegas up 2-1 early in the second period. Mark Stone and Marchessault have scored big goals for Vegas, as have trade deadline acquisitions Tomas Hertl and Noah Hanifin.

Johnston was the overtime hero for Dallas on Saturday and has cemented his place as one of the best young players in the NHL with his play over the four games. Jason Robertson and Miro Heiskanen have scored for the Stars, and though Roope Hintz had been held pointless through almost four full games, he made a sensational play to end Monday’s contest.

With Vegas pressuring for the tying goal late, Hintz blocked a shot that left him visibly shaken. It was one of an incredible 16 blocks by Dallas in the third period. Hintz stayed on the ice, continued defending and eventually corralled the puck and sent it the length of the ice and into the empty net.

“I think everyone knew that these games would be like this,” DeBoer said. “You look at the four games — I don’t think we’ve played a poor game yet. I thought the first two games in Dallas, they were opportunistic in some different situations. I loved Game 3. Tonight for Game 4, you know you’re going to see their best, and I thought we were good tonight considering the situation. So I’m excited about our group getting home.”

Both goalies have played excellent hockey, especially lately. Logan Thompson stood on his head Saturday night, stopping a franchise-record 43 shots to hold the Golden Knights in the game.

Jake Oettinger returned serve Monday with his best game of the postseason. He stopped the last 18 shots he faced, including 14 in the third period while Dallas protected a one-goal lead. Vegas spent most of the final frame attacking, but Oettinger was sharp on his edges, square to the puck and made the saves look easy.

The Stars held Vegas out of the dangerous areas for the most part, but late in the game, Oettinger robbed Hertl with a glove save from the side of the net. Moments later, Hintz scored the empty-netter to seal the win.

“I thought we had scoring chances, but that’s the sport,” Vegas center William Karlsson said. “It’s going to bounce one way on one day and bounce the other way on the next day. We just have to regroup and focus on the next game. It’s two good teams going at it. It’s going to be the little things that decide it.”

Now it becomes a best-of-three series, and both sides know the margin for error is slim.

“We have to be the team that makes the right plays the next game, like we did on the last trip,” Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy said. “I don’t think it was our best game. I don’t think it was theirs, in Dallas, but we made the plays at the right time to win the hockey game and played winning hockey in the third period.”

All of it feels much bigger than a first-round series, but that’s the beauty of it. It has already given us four excellent hockey games and feels destined to make it seven. Whoever emerges from this battle will roll straight into an even bigger matchup with either a loaded Colorado Avalanche squad that’s firing on all cylinders or a big, strong Winnipeg Jets team that found a way to claw its way back from a 3-1 hole.

To this point, it hasn’t been the most exciting first round as a whole, but the Golden Knights and Stars are delivering.

(Photo of Jake Oettinger defending the net against Tomas Hertl: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

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