Howden’s winner swiftly ends OT as Golden Knights fend off Stars to take Game 1


In another tone-deaf decision, the National Hockey League decided Friday to carry on with the Stanley Cup Playoffs rather than announce a day of mourning because the Toronto Maple Leafs fired a general manager who won one playoff round in five seasons.

But the league got this decision right.

The Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars conjured a terrific distraction by opening the Western Conference Final with a rip-snorter of a game that the Knights won 4-3 in overtime after the Stars twice rallied in the third period to tie.

And unlike the tedious, quadruple overtime that settled Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday in favour of the Florida Panthers, the Knights and Stars packed all their drama into less than 62 minutes.

Brett Howden scored the winner just 95 seconds into overtime when he banked the puck in off swirling Dallas goalie Jake Oettinger after the Knights forward retrieved his own rebound from the end boards following a miss from Mark Stone’s excellent setup.

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Oettinger appeared to clip his skate against teammate Max Domi above the crease as the goalie pivoted in an attempt to retreat to his post.

Jamie Benn had tied the game for the Stars with 1:59 remaining in regulation time, and Oettinger on the bench for an extra skater, when the veteran patiently waited for the puck to be excavated from a scramble and slid it under Adin Hill’s pad after the Vegas goalie had stopped shots by Miro Heiskanen and Joe Pavelski.

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The game had everything but overt animosity, but give this series time. These are two heavyweights, deep, strong, hefty teams that are built for the playoffs. You could do a lot worse than Vegas-Dallas in a Stanley Cup Final but one of them won’t make it that far.

Despite getting outshot 11-1 through the first nine minutes, Dallas opened scoring when Jason Robertson, the Stars’ 46-goal scorer from the regular season who had gone eight playoff games without a goal, redirected Roope Hintz’s shot after a crazy side-boards carom.

But the Knights got the next two goals from William Karlsson before Hintz made it 2-2 at 4:01 of the third period. After Keegan Kolesar caused a pileup by taking the puck to the Dallas net the way a bull takes its horns to a matador, fourth-liner Teddy Blueger flipped a rebound past Oettinger to put Vegas back in front with 10:40 remaining.

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Benn made it 3-3 after Chandler Stephenson failed to clear the Vegas zone with just over two minutes remaining.

Shots finished 37-36 for the Golden Knights. Game 2 is Sunday in Las Vegas.

STILL WILD BILL

William Karlsson is one of seven Original Misfits from the expansion roster of castoffs who – and it’s still hard to believe – took the Golden Knights to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final in the franchise’s first season.

His astonishing individual breakthrough mirrored the team’s improbable success as Karlsson transformed from a 13-minutes-a-game, third-line forward in Columbus who scored six goals in his final season with the Blue Jackets, to a 19-minute, first-line centre who scored 46 times for Vegas in 2017-18.

In Season 6, Karlsson is now the Knights’ third centre (by minutes), which is a reflection of the team’s strength rather than any diminishment of the player. The 30-year-old is actually a better all-around player now, even behind No. 1 centre Jack Eichel and Stephenson, another Vegas original who has evolved mightily since the expansion season.

Karlsson has always been regarded for his 200-foot-game, and coach Bruce Cassidy used him Friday to match up against Hintz, Robertson and Pavelski. Against Dallas’ first line, one of the best in hockey, Karlsson scored twice and had an expected-goals-for of 73.4 per cent, as the Knights outshot the Stars 13-5 with “Wild Bill” on the ice at five-on-five.

“I felt great all game, honestly,” Karlsson told Sportsnet’s Scott Oake in a walkoff interview. “I had a lot of energy, so I might as well use it, right?

“I’m proud to have been here for, what is it, six years now? And I love playing for Vegas. Every night is special and. . . I don’t take that for granted.”

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HALF-FULL, HALF-EMPTY STARS

The best sign for the Stars is that Robertson finally scored after going the entire, seven-game, second-round series against the Seattle Kraken without a goal. And Hintz had a dynamite finish on his goal and assisted on two others to take over the playoff scoring lead.

These guys and Pavelski are difference makers, so it is encouraging for Dallas to see them generate goals despite getting outplayed at even strength by Karlsson, Nicolas Roy and Reilly Smith.

Just as there is no doubt that Dallas’ playoff MVP so far has been Hintz, there’s little argument that their second-best player has been defenceman Miro Heiskanen, who has averaged 28:15 of ice time in the playoffs and will probably finish top-five in Norris Trophy balloting despite failing to be one of the three finalists the NHL announced earlier this month.

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It’s just one night, but Heiskanen wasn’t close to his top game on Friday. He was on the ice for three of the Vegas goals and, disconcertingly, got walked by Kolesar on Blueger’s go-ahead marker. With Heiskanen beaten wide, Stars defenceman Ryan Suter tried to cut off Kolesar at the crease, causing a pileup that gave Oettinger little chance on the followup.

Heiskanen finished pointless in 29:23 of ice time, and at five-on-five Dallas was outchanced 17-10 with their blueline ace on the ice.

GOALIE DUEL

Both Oettinger and Hill were solid in Game 1, and goaltending wasn’t the deciding factor despite a couple of sporty bounces.

But this is the third straight series for Vegas when its goaltending, in theory, is supposed to be second-best. The Knights beat Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck and the Winnipeg Jets in the opening round with Laurent Brossoit in the Vegas net. In Round 2, after Broissoit was injured and replaced by Hill, the Knights exposed Calder Trophy finalist Stuart Skinner while eliminating the Edmonton Oilers in six games.

Vegas used five goalies this season, and none of them was Robin Lehner, the starter who missed the entire campaign after undergoing hip surgery last summer. Now it’s Hill, the 27-year-old journeyman from Comox, B.C., against Oettinger.

Dallas beat Seattle despite Oettinger stopping only 87.7 per cent of Kraken shots and getting pulled twice. The Stars won’t beat the Knights without better goaltending.

QUOTEBOOK

Mark Stone in Brett Howden’s OT winner: “We missed the empty net first; I was freaking out a little bit when he missed it, but he stuck with it. When he got (the second chance) on, I don’t think any of us could see it but we knew it had to be in. It kind of sums up our team: a little bit of determination, stick with the program, and a great play by Howie to stay with it and bank it in.”

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