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5 reasons why the Knights lost to the Stars: ‘It’s not easy to repeat’

DALLAS — It was a memorable title defense until the end.

The Golden Knights just ran out of gas.

A season that began with the best start ever for a defending Stanley Cup champion, then months of ups and downs, ended when the Knights lost 2-1 in Game 7 to the Dallas Stars in the first round Sunday.

The Knights had every opportunity to extend their season when they took a 2-0 series lead after winning the first two games in Dallas.

But the Stars adjusted and held the Knights to two goals or fewer the final five games. Dallas coach Pete DeBoer improved to 8-0 in Games 7s in his career to get his team to the second round. The Knights now have a long offseason to reflect on how the series slipped away.

“Last year was the most fun I think all of us ever had playing the game of hockey in this league, for sure,” Knights captain Mark Stone said. “We want to get back there. It’s not easy to repeat. Doesn’t happen often. But at the same time, we believe we should be competing for the Stanley Cup every year.”

Everything seemed to be going the Knights’ way entering the playoffs.

Stone returned after missing the final two months with a lacerated spleen. Him being placed on long-term injured reserve allowed the Knights to acquire defenseman Noah Hanifin, center Tomas Hertl and right wing Anthony Mantha on retained salary at the trade deadline.

Thanks to the newcomers and the play of goaltender Logan Thompson, the team went 10-5-1 its final 16 games to reach the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons.

“There’s some obvious difficulties and some positives,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “We came out of the gate (to start the season) really well. Then, adversity kind of kicks in. I give our guys a lot of credit. They played through a lot of injury and trying to find chemistry with guys. I think some of it took its toll eventually.”

So, what changed? Why are the Knights heading home early?

Here are five things that turned the series:

1. Stone not up to speed

Stone returned from his second back surgery in less than a year at the beginning of last postseason and found his stride by Game 2.

This time the Knights captain never quite looked like himself.

Stone had three goals in the series but two came on the power play and one went into an empty net. He never looked comfortable at five-on-five.

The 31-year-old did not make excuses. He said he was healthy enough to return to the lineup, so he felt he should’ve contributed.

“Would I have liked to produce another goal in Game 7 to help us win the hockey game? Of course. I think there’s a lot of guys that would’ve,” Stone said. “It’s not the easiest thing in the world, but at the end of the day, if you’re going to go out there, you have to go out there to produce and help your team win games.”

2. Fighting fire with fire

The Stars beat the Knights at their own game.

Cassidy said back in training camp the NHL is a copycat league and teams would try to emulate what the Knights did to win a championship.

They dominated at five-on-five last postseason. Dallas returned the favor in this series.

The Stars held a clear advantage in every key stat at five-on-five — scoring chances (193-139), high-danger chances (79-49) and goals (11-9).

Dallas put on a masterclass on keeping the Knights to the outside of the offensive zone. The series could’ve ended much sooner if Thompson and Adin Hill didn’t do a stellar job of limiting the Stars’ offense themselves.

3. Quiet blue line

Hanifin did his part. Brayden McNabb did more than his fair share.

The rest of the Knights’ defensemen didn’t chip in much offensively.

The blue line combined for 11 points in the series. Hanifin and McNabb each had five. Alex Pietrangelo earned the other with an assist.

Pietrangelo played well in Games 6 and 7 but took poor penalties in Games 4 and 5 that led to Dallas goals.

Shea Theodore finished without a point and had several crucial turnovers. His fumbled puck at the blue line led to center Roope Hintz’s empty-net goal that sealed Game 4. Center Wyatt Johnston also took the puck away from Theodore before the Stars’ first goal in Game 7.

The Knights’ defense corps was considered one of the main reasons they became champions last season. This series wasn’t their best.

4. Hertl couldn’t find a home

One challenge Cassidy couldn’t solve was where to put his newest player.

Hertl, who only played six regular-season games with the Knights, moved around all series. He started at second-line left wing, shifted to the third line to take faceoffs for the injured William Karlsson and finished on the top line with center Jack Eichel and right wing Jonathan Marchessault.

Hertl was a minus-6 in the series. He never looked comfortable or settled given his limited reps with his new teammates.

A full offseason should help him look more like the player the Knights hoped to acquire. Hertl will get more time to heal from his February knee surgery and a full training camp to acclimate. He should also be able to stick at center full-time if center Chandler Stephenson, an unrestricted free agent, leaves this offseason.

5. Johnston’s impact

The Knights had no answer for Dallas’ young phenom.

Johnston, who turns 21 on May 14, scored his fourth goal of the series Sunday. He was a menace and led the Stars with 40 scoring chances in the series in all situations.

Second on Dallas was captain Jamie Benn with 21.

The Stars’ young core of Johnston, 22-year-old defenseman Thomas Harley and 21-year-old left wing Logan Stankoven made a huge different compared to the Western Conference Final between the two teams a year ago. The Knights, on the other hand, got just one game from 23-year-old left wing Pavel Dorofeyev. He played 7:11 in Game 5 before being benched in the second period.

Contact Danny Webster at dwebster@reviewjournal.com. Follow @DannyWebster21 on X.

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