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High-flying Oilers, well-balanced Stars set for Western Conference final clash

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Pete DeBoer met with his captain shortly after arriving in Texas.

The message from the Dallas Stars head coach to Jamie Benn in June 2022 was clear.

And the veteran forward was fully on board.

"There's no agenda there," DeBoer recalled Wednesday. "Other than wanting to win."

A former Art Ross Trophy winner and Olympic gold medallist, Benn was still an important piece. He was also going to be moved down the lineup, play alongside a rookie centre, and have his minutes reduced.

"Didn't blink," DeBoer said of that first conversation. "It was, 'If this helps us win, I'm all in.' You'd love 20 of those guys."

The Stars might not have 20 versions of Jamie Benn, but they have a committed, well-balanced attack heading into Thursday's Western Conference final opener against Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the high-flying Edmonton Oilers.

"We've built a culture," Benn said. "We're a confident group, we're a deep team. Now it's on us to do something with that."

That "something" is winning the Stanley Cup — an as-yet-elusive prize he desperately craves alongside a trio of veteran teammates.

The 34-year-old winger has played more than 1,100 regular-season games in the NHL, fellow forward Joe Pavelski's number sits at over 1,300 contests, and defenceman Ryan Suter is just shy of 1,450.

Cup chase 'only reason' why veteran is playing

Matt Duchene, meanwhile, is fourth on the list with more than 1,050 games.

"It's the only reason I'm playing," the 39-year-old Suter said of the chance to hoist hockey's holy grail.

Bought out by the Nashville Predators last summer, the 33-year-old Duchene circled the Stars as a team with unfinished business.

"Felt like this would be a really hungry, determined group," he said. "These guys are winners that just haven't won yet."

Dallas, which captured its only title in 1999 and most recently made the final in 2020, qualified for last season's third round before falling to the eventual Cup-winning Vegas Golden Knights.

"It took a long time for me to get to it last year," said Suter, whose team topped Vegas this spring before dispatching the Colorado Avalanche. "To have the chance to go back and, hopefully do a little better, is awesome."

Oilers 'more mature' since 2022 final-four loss

The Oilers, meanwhile, beat the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks to advance. The team's core — still firmly in its prime — made the conference final in 2022 only to get swept by Colorado.

"A lot more experience," McDavid said of his team Wednesday evening after the Oilers arrived in rainy Dallas. "Being in different situations, holding leads, needing to come back, whatever the situation, I feel like we've been in it the last couple of years.

"Definitely a more mature group."

The Stars will have to be wary of an Oilers attack that, despite struggling at times against Vancouver, still tops the playoffs in goals and power-play percentage.

"A lot of high-end skill," said Stars defenceman Chris Tanev, a trade deadline acquisition from the Calgary Flames who knows McDavid and Co. well. "It takes a whole team to beat them. You need all five guys on the ice to be playing together and connected and communicating."

That's been DeBoer's overarching message from Day 1.

"We're going to do it as a group," Benn said of his coach's creed. "It's from top to bottom and starts with 200-foot hockey. It doesn't have to be the same guys every night.

"That's the best part about this team."

DeBoer, who has coached in a conference final six of the last 10 years, said Benn, Pavelski, Suter and Duchene — who bagged the series-clinching goal against Colorado in overtime — have delivered.

"They set the culture," he said. "They set the culture for our work ethic, they set the culture for our messaging."

"You have to be at the point in your career where the No. 1 priority on your list is winning a Stanley Cup," DeBoer added. "We've got a group of veterans that are at that point in their career. It's not about personal accolades or about money or about other things."

Stars recognize opportunity

And their younger teammates recognize the waning opportunity. Wyatt Johnston lives with Pavelski — a player without a Cup at age 39 — and his family.

"Shows how hard it is to win," said the 21-year-old centre. "He has been on some amazing teams … just hasn't been able to get it done yet."

DeBoer added he can sense the group's desire to finish the job for their leaders.

"Those guys are on the back nine," he said. "But they've put their money where their mouth is. They've all taken less of a role. They've all taken less in order to let some of these young guys emerge and play bigger roles.

"That's been the key to our depth and our success."

The Oilers, of course, also feel like this is their time. Motivation comes in different forms. For many on the Stars' side, however, it's the ticking clock.

"Everybody plays this game to win a Stanley Cup," Benn said. "We've got more than a few guys here with over 1,000 games that haven't done that yet. That's our motivation.

"They want to win, but so do we. We'll find out who wants it more."  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 22, 2024.

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