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Stars pose sizable challenge to Oilers in Western Conference Final

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It should be the toughest test yet this post-season for the Edmonton Oilers.

Canada's lone remaining team in the National Hockey League playoffs have overcome several obstacles on the way to their second Western Conference Final appearance in three years.

Still, the Dallas Stars — the West's top seed that dispatched the two most recent Stanley Cup champions en route to the third-round series that begins Thursday — pose an even bigger challenge to the Oilers given their comparative domination in key areas of the game.

Dallas's expected even-strength goal share at 54.7 per cent in the 2024 Stanley Cup playoffs is the highest among the remaining teams. By comparison, Edmonton's sits below the magic mark of 50 per cent at 48.79 per cent after two rounds of play.

Their offence this post-season has been led by a youthful trio of stars, with defenceman 24-year-old Miro Heiskanen leading the Stars in scoring averaging a point per game through 13 of them, including five goals.

Jason Robertson, the 24-year-old winger who was Dallas's top regular-season points-getter with 80, has three goals and nine assists for 12 points, while centre Wyatt Johnston, 21, is pacing the team in goal-scoring with seven to go with four assists for 11 points.

That's not to mention veteran forwards Jamie Benn, the captain, Tyler Seguin and Joe Pavelski, who not long ago were the offensive catalysts in Dallas, who have eight players on today's roster who played in the 2020 Cup final under the Edmonton bubble.

Goaltending, too, is a strength of the Stars, with starting goalie Jake Oettinger sporting a .918 save percentage after two rounds against the Vegas Golden Knights and the Colorado Avalanche. By comparison, Oilers starter Stuart Skinner has an .881 save percentage, although backup Calvin Pickard has put up a .915 mark over seven periods of work.

'We have to be a tight-checking team'

The answers? Some of it relies on limiting the Stars' chances and checking them closely, says Oilers head coach Kris Knoblauch.

"Through the playoffs, every team that has success is good defensively," Knoblauch told media following practice on Wednesday.

"We have to be a tight-checking team and limit the chances that we give up. We know, as a team, there'll be mistakes and there will be chances. The other team has some really good players (who will) make some plays, but we cannot get away from playing a tight-checking game."

Oilers defenceman Cody Ceci said Dallas, who lost to eventual Cup champion Vegas in last year's conference final, showed both during the regular season and in the playoffs that they're effective at creating chances off the rush.

"That's something we're going to have to keep an eye on, try to slow them down and make sure that everyone's above their check coming back," Ceci said Wednesday, adding that he and his teammates have been keeping tabs on the other teams in the playoffs over the last month.

"Especially on the road, we all hang out with each other in the players' lounge or the mailroom and watch all the other games, so we've been keeping an eye on every series," he said.

"We know they're a great team and we know how dangerous they can be off the rush."

Small details matter

Forward Adam Henrique, who sat out six of the seven games the Oilers played against the Vancouver Canucks because of injury, said success against a "deep" team that's "coached well" such as the Stars -- nine of their players recorded more than 50 points during the regular season compared to five on the Oilers' roster -- will "come down to those small details and those little mistakes that can end up costing us."

He said his Oilers teammates "played a complete game, both sides of the puck" in the last two games of the previous round against the Canucks, suggesting that's the approach they'll want to use against the Stars.

"I think just playing that detailed game and just playing with confidence like the group has been, I think that's going to be key for us, and playing with that pace that we can play with," Henrique said.

Experience, too, is something the Oilers can draw from, defenceman Darnell Nurse said, although each team and series are "a little bit different."

"I think with the experience of having gone through (a conference final) once, obviously there's excitement," Nurse said after practice.

"There's also a level of just wanting to play and to not really worry about anything else. I think the excitement level is definitely there, but I think (we're) probably a calmer group going into this." 

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