By STEPHEN HAWKINS AP Sports Writer
Jamie Benn has played in more postseason games for the Dallas Stars than anyone. Their captain has finally made it out of the second round.
“Obviously we were in the exact same situation last year and came out on the wrong end of it,” Benn said. “It’s nice to get that win and move on.”
On to the Western Conference final for the first time since 2008, which was two years before Benn’s NHL debut.
General manager Jim Nill signed playoff veterans Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry in free agency last summer, putting them on a roster with Benn and Tyler Seguin. But the Stars had an unlikely hero in their 5-4 overtime win over Colorado in Game 7 on Friday.
Rookie forward Joel Kiviranta, in his only game against the Avalanche, completed a hat trick with his series-clinching goal 7:24 into overtime of what was Benn’s 48th career playoff game over four different postseasons. Kiviranta’s second goal tied the game at 4 with 3:30 left in regulation, only 10 seconds after Colorado had gone ahead for the third time.
“I’m not the smartest guy in the world. But there’s a pretty good chance he’ll be in our lineup in the next game,” interim head coach Rick Bowness said of Kiviranta, who had one goal in 11 games during the regular season. “I’ll talk to him … and let him know that, yeah, you’re playing next game.”
That will be Sunday night in the conference final opener against top-seeded Vegas, which like Dallas had a 3-1 series lead before getting pushed to seven games in the second round. The Golden Knights beat Vancouver 3-0 on Friday night, on the same ice in Edmonton where the Stars had advanced only a few hours earlier.
A year after losing Game 7 of their semifinal series in double overtime to eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis, the Stars got their first Game 7 overtime winner since moving to Dallas more than a quarter-century ago.
“We learned from last year in that double-overtime loss to St. Louis,” Bowness said. “You just hang in there. You battle moment to moment, shift to shift, and you see what happens.”
The Stars and Knights split their two games during the regular season, both in Dallas. Vegas won 5-3 a month ago in round-robin play among the top four seeds when Western Conference teams resumed play in Edmonton.
Vegas is already in the Western final for the second time in the franchise’s three-season history. This is only the second time the Stars have gotten this far since their back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances in 1999 and 2000 — they won their only title in 1999.
“Unreal feeling,” Stars defenseman John Klingberg said after Game 7 against the Avs. “We’ve seen a lot of goals scored. It’s been a weird series for us. It’s been up and down throughout the whole series. That’s what it is in playoffs. You’ve got to keep your emotions intact, not get too high, not get too low. … We’re going to feel good about ourselves here.”
The Stars, who had at least five goals only five times in 69 regular-season games, scored exactly five goals in each of their four wins over Colorado. They also had at least five goals in three of their first-round wins against Calgary.
That was after they had only four total goals and were held scoreless for 179 of 185 minutes during the round-robin games, when all three goals in the loss to Vegas came in a five-minute span of the second period. They were shut out by the Avs before a shootout win over St. Louis after Pavelski’s goal in the final minute of regulation tied the game at 1.
Before the season had been paused more than 4 1/2 months prior to that because of the coronavirus pandemic, Dallas had lost six games in a row.
“I’m just happy for the guys. This isn’t about me whatsoever. I’m an old guy just enjoying the ride,” said Bowness, who this year became only the third NHL coach to be on the bench in parts of five decades. “It’s a great moment for the organization. And keeping in mind that we’re halfway home. We came here to win the Stanley Cup.”
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