Remember Game 3 of the Western Conference finals? And the questions that followed?
Were the Vegas Golden Knights really about to sweep the Dallas Stars? Or was it more likely the Golden Knights would close out the series at T-Mobile Arena in Game 5? What could the Stars do to avoid being swept? How could the Stars fare without Jamie Benn, and would Benn return at some point in the series? Or would next season be the earliest anyone would see the Stars captain take the ice?
But now, there's a different set of questions.
Are the Golden Knights in serious trouble -- or is this temporary? How did the Stars hand the Golden Knights back-to-back losses for the first time since late March? Can the Stars force a Game 7? And if they do, are the Stars really about to come back from a 3-0 series deficit to reach the Stanley Cup Final?
Clearly, there are questions about what could happen Monday in Game 6 at American Airlines Arena in Dallas (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+). That said, we've put together a guide featuring what to watch from each team, along with some questions of note from Ryan S. Clark and an in-depth statistical analysis from ESPN Stats & Information.
At this point in the series, is it more about what's gone right for the Stars in the last two games, or more about what's gone wrong for the Golden Knights?
For those who want to get philosophical about it, look at the last five games this way: Mistakes cost the Stars a chance to win Game 1 in overtime. If Wyatt Johnston scores in overtime before Chandler Stephenson's winner, then, the series would be split after two games. Game 3 was a four-goal blowout, whereas the Stars changed their fortunes by winning their first overtime game of the series -- and the playoffs as a whole -- in Game 4. Of course, Game 5 was tied at 2-2 before Ty Dellandrea's two third-period goals forced a Game 6.
But what else could one expect in a conference finals in which three of the five games have gone to overtime? What occurred in Game 5 appears to have offered more insight into how this series has changed for both teams.
One of the problems facing the Stars was the inability to generate high-danger scoring chances in the first three games. It's why they finished with a total of 19 high-danger chances in 5-on-5 play before Game 4, per Natural Stat Trick. Since then, the Stars have accounted for 30 high-danger chances -- 15 in each game -- which has played a role in what has made them look even more formidable.
"I think we try to limit turnovers and I think that's something in the whole series has been a key point to play very well and play in their zone," Stars forward Jason Robertson said. "Avoid the neutral-zone turnovers and the 'hope' plays. I think for the majority of the game we did that very well -- this game and last game. We gotta continue that in Game 6."
To Robertson's point, the Stars were charged with nine giveaways in Game 5. That was a bit of contrast compared to the Golden Knights, considering how much they struggled with their puck management. Through the first four games of the Western Conference finals, the Golden Knights were responsible for committing 33 giveaways. In Game 5 alone they had 24 giveaways, which is another reason why the Stars likely held a shot-share percentage of more than 60%.
"We had 24 giveaways. I'm not sure you're beating the Arizona Coyotes in January with 24 giveaways -- no disrespect to Arizona," Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy said. "It's not the right way to play. Twenty-four giveaways. We're trying to go to the Stanley Cup Final against a desperate team. To me, that's the whole game right there. That falls under urgency obviously, right? You're not making the right decisions with the puck, you're not supporting it well, so it starts right there."
What does getting Jamie Benn back mean for the Stars?
Benn's return from a two-game suspension after his Game 3 cross-check against Golden Knights captain Mark Stone gives Stars coach Pete DeBoer another top-nine option. Being without Benn was not the only adjustment DeBoer and his coaching staff had to account for over the last two games. They've also been without Evgenii Dadonov, who has been out of the lineup with a lower-body injury since the early stages of Game 3.
Adding Benn to the lineup can be viewed in a number of different ways. The Stars are adding a player who scored 33 regular-season goals, at what looks like a bit of a pivot point following Game 5. Benn has scored three playoff goals, but there's a point to be made about how he scores those goals.
More than 50% of Benn's regular-season shots, along with 60% of his goals, came from those high-danger areas such as the low slot and net front, according to IcyData. It's possible that adding Benn and his ability to get those goals in those portions of the ice could prove beneficial, considering the Stars have found more success in consistently generating high-danger scoring chances over the last two games.
Now add what Benn could potentially provide to a team that just got three of its four goals in Game 5 from Luke Glendening and Dellandrea, while also factoring in what Robertson has done in scoring five of the Stars' 12 goals in the conference finals.
"We have a lot of belief in this room that we can beat anyone on any given night," Stars forward Max Domi said. "That being said, we've got to come ready to play. We do all the things we talk about, we execute the game plan to the best of our ability and we've been able to do that the last couple games."
What does Vegas need to do in order to close out the series?
It could start with finding ways to firmly gain control. Even though the Stars owned possession in Game 5, it's not the first time the Golden Knights have gone through that experience. All but one of their wins against the Edmonton Oilers in the second round ended with the Golden Knights having a short-share percentage of less than 50%. It reinforces the belief that the Golden Knights don't necessarily need puck control to win games. Like Cassidy said, it could be a matter of limiting their turnovers in Game 6 compared to Game 5.
"We mismanaged another puck and we were out of it there," Cassidy said. "Credit to them for how they created some of their offense tonight and caused some problems for us. At the end of the day, they scored goals in the third and we didn't."
Exactly how damaging were those turnovers? Look no further than a few of the Stars' goals. Miro Heiskanen forced the turnover that eventually led to Dellandrea scoring his first goal. Dellandrea's second goal was a byproduct of a turnover. Zach Whitecloud tried playing the puck off the boards behind the net, only to have Domi gather the puck and throw it on goal. That led to a loose puck at the net front that Dellandrea lifted over Adin Hill for a 4-2 lead.
Let's say the Golden Knights are able to limit turnovers and reduce the number of high-danger chances they've allowed. That still leaves them with the task of trying to find success against Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger in an elimination game. In the first round last year against the Calgary Flames, Oettinger showed what he's capable of achieving with his team's proverbial back to the wall. That continues to hold true this postseason, with Oettinger accruing a .948 save percentage in five career elimination games, which also includes what he did in Games 4 and 5 when he had a combined .940 save percentage to keep the Stars' season alive.
"There's no doubt in here," Golden Knights defenseman Alec Martinez said. "There's frustration, obviously. You want to close out a series. But, again, the Dallas Stars are a really good hockey team. This is that time of year that they're playing really well and like I said before, we've got to match their urgency and desperation."
What does Dallas need to do to force a Game 7?
Everything the Stars did in Games 4 and 5 provided a blueprint. Force the Golden Knights into committing the sort of turnovers that can be parlayed into high-danger chances. Continue to tap into the additional scoring options beyond Robertson. Plus, find a balance that allows Oettinger to harness his elimination game success while offering him support in the defensive zone.
Yet there could be one more item the Stars may add to that plan: Getting on the power play.
Several factors have contributed to how the Stars reached the Western Conference finals, and executing one of the NHL's strongest power plays is one of them. They finished the regular season fifth in the league, converting 25.0% of their chances, and have pushed that number to 32.0% in the postseason; that's good for fifth in the playoffs overall, and tops among the three teams that are still alive.
Despite scoring four goals, the Stars never went on the power play in Game 5. But if they can go on the extra-skater advantage in Game 6, it could give them another dimension toward pushing the series to Game 7 -- especially when the Golden Knights' penalty kill has a 61.4% success rate that ranks 15th among the 16 playoff teams. But that rate comes with the caveat the Golden Knights have faced three of the top five power-play units in the postseason in the Winnipeg Jets, Oilers and Stars.
"It just shows you how fast things can change," Oettinger said. "We were down 3-0 yesterday, it seems like. Now, it's 3-2 and we're going home."
Notes from ESPN Stats & Information
Vegas has scored 44 goals at 5-on-5, seven more than any other team this postseason (the Stars are second, with 37). The next 5-on-5 goal by the Golden Knights will pass the 2021 team for the most in a single postseason in franchise history.
The Golden Knights have outscored the Stars 6-4 in the first period this series, but Vegas still has the worst first-period goal differential in the playoffs at minus-4. This comes after they had the second-best first-period goal differential in the regular season, at plus-30 behind only the Boston Bruins at plus-31.
While the Golden Knights have nine different goal scorers in the series, Jack Eichel is not among them. While he doesn't have a goal, he has tallied four assists, all at even strength. Eichel does have the most shots on goal of any Golden Knights player in this series (17) and his 13 scoring chances created (eight scoring chance shot attempts plus five scoring chance assists) are tied with Jason Robertson for the most of any player in this series.
Eichel needs two points to become the third player in Golden Knights history to score 20 in a single postseason. The others were Reilly Smith, with 22 in 2018, and Jonathan Marchessault, with 21 in 2018.
William Karlsson, Marchessault and Chandler Stephenson each have eight goals this postseason, which are tied for the Golden Knights single postseason record with Marchessault in 2018 and Alex Tuch in 2020.
Goalie Adin Hill has played eight games this postseason on one day of rest between games, and has posted a save percentage of .933 in those games. During the entire regular season, Hill played five games with one day of rest, and posted a save percentage of .907 in those games.
The Stars have won each of their last three home games when facing elimination over the last two postseasons (won 3-2 in Game 4 of this series, won 2-1 in Game 7 of second round vs. the Seattle Kraken & 4-2 in Game 6 of 2022 first-round series against the Calgary Flames).
Dallas scored four goals at 5-on-5 in Game 5, which tied its single-game high this postseason with Games 1 and 5 of the second round. The Stars had scored a total of four goals at 5-on-5 in the previous four games of the series.
Robertson has scored five goals this series, which is only one fewer than the rest of Stars forwards have scored in this series (Ty Dellandrea's two goals in Game 5 are the only other Dallas forward with more than one goal in this series). Outside of his 11-shot performance in Game 4, Robertson has a total of eight shots in the other four games.
Robertson's next goal will give him the most in a semifinals/conference finals series in Dallas/Minnesota North Stars franchise history. He is currently tied with Bill Goldsworthy in the 1968 semifinals, Jamie Langenbrunner in the 1999 conference finals and Brett Hull in the 2000 conference finals.
Jamie Benn's return makes for a tough lineup decision for Dallas. The fourth line of Fredrik Olofsson-Radek Faksa-Luke Glendening combined for a goal (Glendening's 1-1 goal) and 10 shot attempts in Game 5. According to Stathletes, the Stars generated 1.07 expected goals at 5-on-5 when they were on the ice together in Game 5, the highest of any Stars forward unit.
Stars goalie Jake Oettinger is 4-1 with a .949 save percentage in his five career starts when facing elimination, in a virtual tie for the second-highest save percentage all-time when facing playoff elimination among goalies with at least five such starts. The only time Oettinger has allowed more than two goals in his five previous starts when facing elimination was when he gave up three on 67 shots in Game 7 of the 2022 first round against the Flames.