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Racers were angry. Racers were complaining. Racers were questioning everything, live in HD on our television sets.

Awesome. Welcome to the postseason.

On Sunday night in the 73rd edition of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, NASCAR’s oldest speedway and its still-new race car joined forces to send the sport through a time machine and a garbage disposal all at once. When the checkered flag flew and the smoke quite literally cleared, Erik Jones drove a car into Victory Lane that hadn’t won this race in exactly 55 years, Richard Petty’s always famous but often feeble No. 43. Meanwhile, Chase Elliott, the driver who led the 2022 Cup Series standings all season, ended the night and started the NASCAR playoffs finishing dead last.

As noted NASCAR fan (probably) Maximus Decimus Meridius once asked, “Are you not entertained?!”

Honestly, Max? Yes. Yes, we were. We have been all season long. And we will take nine more weeks of it, from here until the final lap at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 6, thank you very much.

Granted, none of us is Elliott (unless he is reading this, and if he is, hey, man, thanks), who now sits ninth in the standings while staring cautiously at the two tracks that will be raced upon before the postseason field is whittled from 16 to 12. He finished 29th at Kansas Speedway earlier this year and 25th at Bristol Motor Speedway in its last non-dirt event one year ago. None of us is Kyle Busch, who led 155 laps at Darlington, seemingly en route to getting his title run back in order … before popping an engine and finishing 30th.

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And none of us is Kevin Harvick, who slogged through most of the regular season, then won two in a row to seize momentum heading into the playoffs, in search of his second series title. But his night ended in South Carolina with him escaping a fire-engulfed Ford, reigniting his bemoaning of NASCAR’s new one-size-fits-all Next Gen car as being unsafe.

“What a disaster for no reason,” the 46-year old ironically known as “Happy” said on NBC Sunday night. “We didn’t touch the wall. We didn’t touch a car and here we are in the pits with a burned-up car, and we can’t finish the race during the playoffs because of crappy-ass parts.”

His irritation is understandable. Harvick is now ranked last among the 16 playoff drivers. Busch sits in 11th. The previous eight years of NASCAR’s so-called Elimination Era say that they are in real trouble of not making the bracket when it cuts four teams two weeks from now. They will have to win one of those two races to advance.

Next Gen cars are providing parity. That’s good, right?

However, those are the same parts and same race car, essentially a spec machine, that have also produced a season that will rank among the most competitive in NASCAR’s nearly 75-year history, no matter what happens over the remaining nine weeks. Jones was the season’s 17th different winner, and more than a few non-playoff participants are still capable of hoisting a trophy before the year ends, led by another who had his heart broken by the Lady in Black, Martin Truex Jr.

The 2022 parity party of victors has opened doors long guarded by stock car racing’s powerhouses, welcoming teams like Petty GMS Motorsports and drivers who have found Victory Lane as difficult to reach as a Himalayan mountain peak.

No one disagrees that the Next Gen car deserves a long, hard look over the winter when it comes to incidents like Harvick’s fire. Safety should always be first.

But most are also in agreement that the equality-generating raciness of the machines doesn’t need to change at all. The ones who remain resistant seem to be those who used to have the winners’ lounge to themselves, superteams that now share that room with guys like this year’s five first-time Cup Series race winners, and would-be second-tier outfits such as Petty GMS, Team 23XI and even the once-mighty Richard Childress Racing. Those who have had that club to themselves aren’t super big fans of level playing fields.

Why would they be? So many future NASCAR Hall of Famers, those who used to be able to elbow out the kids from the bar, are now having to stand in line for the next drink like everyone else, waiting for service from a bartender who looks like an awful lot like Father Time. It happens. It just doesn’t usually happen all at once like it has this season.

But keep in mind that it wasn’t so long ago that the loudest complaints weren’t from the drivers; they came from the fans. When NASCAR’s TV ratings were in the tank and there was nary a highlight to be found or a conversation to be heard on any sports talk show. Like, less than five years ago. The grousers said it was all too predictable. They hated that the same guys won all the time. They howled that one guy (see: Johnson, Jimmie) won all the championships. They said the schedule was full of racetracks that all looked the same, and so did the cars, separated visually by nothing more than a different set of stickers on the nose.

Now NASCAR has 17 winners. It has a schedule packed with road courses. No one has been able to repeat as Cup champ since Johnson’s run of five straight ended … in 2010!

What we have now, Next Gen car and otherwise, might not be perfect, but it’s certainly not boring. No one can accuse the sport of being predictable. Not the sport we’ve watched this season, particularly over the past few weeks, and especially what we witnessed Sunday night at Darlington. Heck, we don’t even know what the schedule is going to look like year to year, after decades of being able to set your watches to the same types of tracks at the same places on the same dates.

Oh, and a heads-up, it’s only about to get wackier. Take a glance at the racetracks that are slated for the cutoff races at the end of each round of these playoffs.

Bristol. Charlotte Roval. Martinsville. Yeesh.

That’s probably not going to be a lot of fun for the racers. They will wreck cars and lose sleep and favorites will fall out of contention and surprises will win more races. They will all stress out because of all the above. They will complain loudly about it all on TV. But the next weekend, another green flag will be waved, and they will do it all over again.

Will we be entertained? Based on the Southern 500, you can bet your maximus we will.

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Without Nylander, Leafs fall to Bruins in Game 1

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Without Nylander, Leafs fall to Bruins in Game 1

BOSTON — Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander sat out his club’s 5-1 loss to the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of this Eastern Conference first-round playoff series on Saturday due to an undisclosed injury.

Nylander, who hasn’t skated with the team since Thursday, did not take the ice for warmups at TD Garden, ending speculation about his availability for at least one game. Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe has not revealed any details about Nylander’s ailment, which reportedly flared up after the Maple Leafs’ regular-season finale on Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Keefe did not have an update on Nylander after Saturday’s loss.

Nylander is coming off a career-best 98-point campaign and is a staple among Toronto’s top six forwards. He also is on the Maple Leafs’ No. 1 power-play unit.

While Keefe did not confirm Nylander’s status earlier in the day, his teammates appeared resigned to playing without him.

“[It’s] tough for him, but hopefully, he won’t miss too much and he’ll be back,” Toronto defenseman Timothy Liljegren said. “[It’s] hard to replace Willy. But we’ve had guys step up when guys go down all year, so it will be no different this time.”

Nylander was the only Maple Leafs player to dress in all 82 regular-season games, and he hadn’t missed a contest in three years.

He was missed on Saturday. Toronto amassed 36 shots on net but couldn’t solve Boston goaltender Jeremy Swayman in the opener. David Kampf, with the Maple Leafs already down 4-0 in the third period, accounted for Toronto’s only goal, with assists from Connor Dewar and Ryan Reaves.

Maple Leafs stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner combined for seven of those shots and nearly 41 minutes of ice time but couldn’t keep Toronto from a 1-0 series deficit.

With Nylander unavailable, Nicholas Robertson stepped into the lineup, entering Toronto’s third line. He finished with 14 shifts and 10:38 of ice time.

Game 2 is Monday in Boston.

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Can the Rangers break the Presidents’ Trophy curse? Key storylines for the 2024 Stanley Cup playoffs

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Can the Rangers break the Presidents' Trophy curse? Key storylines for the 2024 Stanley Cup playoffs

As a service to fans who have a general interest in the National Hockey League but have no idea what’s happened since the Vegas Golden Knights raised the Stanley Cup by defeating the Florida Panthers in June 2023, we’re happy to provide this FAQ as a guide to the 2024 Stanley Cup playoffs.

And for you die-hard puckheads: Here is your official refresher before the games begin Saturday. Enjoy!

How intense was the end of the regular season in the Eastern Conference?

It was “four teams, one open playoff spot” intense, filled with desperation and unfortunate amounts of math.

In the end, the Washington Capitals claimed the final wild-card spot in the East in their season finale by defeating the Philadelphia Flyers, who pulled their goalie in a tie game in the third period because only a regulation win would have kept them alive.

The Caps’ win eliminated the Flyers, the Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins, marking the first time Sidney Crosby has missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons in his legendary career.

For the effort, the Capitals earn a first-round playoff date with the New York Rangers, owners of the NHL’s best record this season.


On the 30th anniversary of their 1994 Stanley Cup win, is this finally the year for the Rangers?

After getting eliminated in the first round last postseason in Game 7 against the New Jersey Devils, changes had to be made for the Rangers. They changed their coach, hiring the well-traveled Peter Laviolette to replace Gerard Gallant, who has proved to be an upgrade.

Star forward Artemi Panarin changed his hair, shaving his angelic locks as a symbolic vibe change that resulted in him setting career highs in goals (49) and points (120). What didn’t change: terrific special teams and dominant goaltending, the bedrock for the Rangers’ 114-point season.

There have been little memorable moments along the way that point to this year being a special one for the Rangers, from their Stadium Series rally against the Islanders to the legend of Matt Rempe.

Rempe, for the uninitiated, is the 6-foot-7 rookie whose chaotic fights made him an instant cult hero for Rangers fans, the likes we haven’t seen since the heyday of Sean Avery. The hard-hitting Rempe, who was suspended four games for elbowing in March, has 71 penalty minutes and 95 minutes played. Only Laviolette knows how much we’ll see of Rempe in the playoffs. If we do, he could be a conversation changer.

So yes, this could be the year for the Rangers … if they overcome the Presidents’ Trophy curse.


What’s the Presidents’ Trophy curse?

There have been 37 previous Presidents’ Trophy winners for having the league’s best record. Only 11 of them advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, and only eight of those teams hoisted the Cup.

Only three teams in the salary cap era (since 2005-06) have won the Presidents’ Trophy and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final.

It’s only gotten tougher in recent years. Since the NHL changed to a wild-card format in 2013-14, there hasn’t been a single Presidents’ Trophy winner that has advanced to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Boston Bruins won the Trophy last season — and set records for regular-season success — but were shocked in the first round by the Panthers.

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1:25

The curse of the NHL’s Presidents’ Trophy

Check out the numbers behind recent Presidents’ Trophy winners and how they’ve fared en route to the Stanley Cup.


Are the Bruins still a Stanley Cup contender?

That stunning loss to the Panthers was devastating on and off the ice. The Bruins said goodbye to centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, who both retired, as well as a handful of other impact players in the offseason.

But Boston refused to let its window to contend slam shut. Using a foundation of coach Jim Montgomery’s defensive system, strong goaltending and star winger David Pastrnak‘s 47-goal, 110-point season, the B’s amassed 109 points to finish second in the Atlantic and earn a first-round series against their old friends, the Toronto Maple Leafs.


Uh-oh, the Leafs drew the Bruins again? Should Toronto stop planning the parade?

The Leafs have had their typical roller-coaster season. The highs were extremely high. Star center Auston Matthews just missed out on the first 70-goal season in the NHL since 1992-93, topping out at 69 goals in 81 games, the most in a single season in Leafs history. William Nylander set a career high with 97 points. But inconsistency, especially in their goaltending, made for some inglorious lows.

And now they draw the Bruins again, a team that has eliminated the Leafs in a first-round Game 7 three times in the last 11 postseasons, in series that all offered their unique flavors of heartbreak for Toronto fans.

This is going to go one of two ways: Toronto sees the Spoked-B, gets in their own heads and loses another heartbreaker; or, the Leafs finally overcome their tormentors in a cathartic series win that launches them into a championship run. Either way, the Leafs have only themselves to blame: Their loss to the Panthers allowed the Cats to leapfrog the Bruins in their final game of the season, setting up more Boston vs. Toronto drama.

Of course, the Panthers earned some drama of their own by setting up the next Battle of Florida.


What can we expect from the Battle of Florida?

This series features two of the best individual performers of the regular season. Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov won the Art Ross Trophy as the leading points earner in the NHL, and he became only the seventh player in NHL history to have a point on at least 50% of his team’s goals. Not bad for a guy who was booed for dogging it at the All-Star Game. The Panthers, meanwhile, got a career-high 57 goals from forward Sam Reinhart, who is a free agent this summer. Good timing, sir.

This is the third Battle of Florida in Stanley Cup playoffs history, with the Lightning winning in six games in 2021 and a sweep in 2022. But these teams are in different places now.

  • The Panthers are ascendant after having lost in the Final last season, as playoff hero Matthew Tkachuk and one of the best defensive teams in the league seek the first championship in franchise history.

  • The Lightning are the East’s first wild-card team. Their veteran core — Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos and Andrei Vasilevskiy — is trying to win a third Cup in five seasons.

For added drama: Stamkos is a free agent this summer, and there’s a non-zero chance this could be the captain’s final postseason with the Lightning.


Are the Panthers the favorite to come out of the East?

Actually, the current favorite to win the conference and the Stanley Cup on ESPN BET is the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Canes are a balanced offensive and defensive team that has been inching toward a championship for the past few seasons under coach Rod Brind’Amour. They bolstered their chances with a pair of significant trade deadline acquisitions: Penguins winger Jake Guentzel and Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov. Both of them are accomplished scorers in the playoffs, and could be the ones to push the Hurricanes over the hump. The hump in this case being all of those one-goal games Carolina loses, including four in the conference final last season.

Carolina faces the New York Islanders in the first round, having beaten the Isles in six games last season. But there’s one huge difference between those Islanders and these Islanders: Patrick Roy, the fiery Hall of Fame goalie who took over as coach and led the Islanders to No. 3 in the Metro Division. Yes, their 16 losses after regulation were the most for a playoff team in the shootout era. But in the past three weeks, no team had a better points percentage than the Isles (.864). They’re peaking at the right time.


Besides Guentzel, who are the other old faces in new places that could impact the playoffs?

In the East, the Panthers added winger Vladimir Tarasenko. But the Western Conference was the real arms race at the NHL trade deadline.


Are the Knights engaging in salary cap gymnastics?

Those accusations were unavoidable after the Knights said captain Mark Stone had been cleared for practice just over a week before the playoffs were set to open. Stone suffered a lacerated spleen on Feb. 20, which allowed them to place his $9.5 million salary cap hit on long-term injured reserve ahead of the March 8 trade deadline.

Last season, Stone had back surgery on Jan. 1 and went on long-term injured reserve, allowing the Knights the cap flexibility to add forward Ivan Barbashev (among others) at the trade deadline. Stone didn’t play in Game 82, when his return would have risked Vegas’s cap compliance, but played in Game 1 of their first-round series against Winnipeg. Stone had 24 points in 22 games to help Vegas win its first Stanley Cup.

General manager Kelly McCrimmon pushed back on any notion that the Golden Knights were working the system, telling Sportsnet that LTIR was “collectively bargained,” and called out those who “insinuate” the injuries aren’t significant.

“Google ‘lacerated spleen’ and see if you can tell when a player is going to be back,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to suggest that these aren’t significant injuries. And furthermore, the NHL polices all of this.”

From the Knights’ success on the ice to their bludgeoning play to their aggressive player acquisitions and the “how do they keep getting away with it?” accusations that accompany them, no team in the NHL is as delightfully divisive as the defending Stanley Cup champions.


Who is the favorite in the West?

The Dallas Stars are favored to win the conference, just slightly ahead of the Edmonton Oilers, and for good reason. If you closed your eyes and were asked to draw a championship roster, it would probably look something like the Stars.

They have one of the deepest forward groups in the NHL, with a balance of savvy veterans (Joe Pavelski, Matt Duchene, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin) combined with in-their-prime standouts (Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz) and impactful young players (Wyatt Johnston). They have an elite defenseman in Miro Heiskanen. While he wasn’t up to standards during much of the season, they have a star goalie in Jake Oettinger who is playing his best hockey at the right time.

The Stars were the runners-up in the West last season to Vegas. GM Jim Nill has constructed a roster that’s as Cup-ready as you’ll find. Now it’s up to coach Pete DeBoer and the players to lift it.

To do so, they’ll have to overcome the Vegas Golden Knights in the first round of the playoffs, the team that eliminated them in the conference final last season after a particularly brutal series.


Yes, and it would be a fitting capper for a wild season in Edmonton.

The Oilers fired coach Jay Woodcroft after winning just three times in their first 13 games in favor of Rangers minor league coach Kris Knoblauch, who (probably not) coincidentally coached McDavid back in juniors. Knoblauch went a stellar 46-17-5, thanks in no small part to McDavid recapturing the magic after his own slow start and finishing with 132 points in 76 games. Draisaitl had 106 points, but the bigger offensive star was 31-year-old winger Zach Hyman, who tallied a career-best 54 goals.

As usual, the Oilers’ success isn’t what Connor and Leon (and Zach) do, but what their supporting cast does. They’re third in 5-on-5 average scoring and eighth in 5-on-5 average defense. Replicate those results and the Oilers could go on a run … if goaltender Stuart Skinner can hold up his end of bargain, which seems to be a running theme during the McDavid years.

The Oilers draw the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, marking the third straight season these two teams will face off in the first round. The Oilers won their first meeting in seven games and last postseason’s meeting in six games. The Kings fired head coach Todd McLellan in favor of Jim Hiller at the All-Star break. Hiller’s gone 20-12-1 since then, seeking to lead L.A. vets like Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty on the Cup run they’ve been salivating to have for several seasons.


The Oilers didn’t even win their division, finishing behind the Vancouver Canucks. How legit are the ‘Nucks as a contender?

If they can reclaim their offensive consistency, they can be dangerous. Coach Rick Tocchet is in the coach of the year conversation because he helped turned the Canucks’ defensive metrics around this season. Through their past 20 games, they’re second in 5-on-5 defense, maintaining the effectiveness they had all season. But their 5-on-5 offense ranked 22nd during that span.

The Canucks have been as top-heavy as a Tootsie Pop this season. After leading scorers J.T. Miller (103 points), Quinn Hughes (91), Elias Pettersson (89) and Brock Boeser (73), there’s a 25-point drop to the next-leading scorer, Filip Hronek.

That depth challenge might hurt them more against other opponents than against the Predators, but Nashville is no pushover. They’re talented and play with pace under coach Andrew Brunette. Plus, they’re one of the NHL’s greatest psychological experiments this season: Can depriving a team from seeing a U2 concert at The Sphere in Las Vegas not only lead to regular-season success but also postseason results?


What does U2 have to do with Nashville?

Besides Bono’s cowboy hat phase, not a lot — except for what happened this season.

The Predators were flailing and called out by their coach for a lack of focus. To get their attention again, Brunette cancelled a planned trip to see U2 at The Sphere while Nashville was on a road trip.

The team responded by going 18 games without a regulation loss, a streak that elevated them to a playoff seed they’d never relinquish. (And if they win the Cup, they have to get U2 to play the victory parade down Broadway, right?)


Speaking of elevation: What’s up with Colorado?

The Avalanche are seeking their second Stanley Cup in three seasons, and redemption after losing in the first round of last year’s playoffs to the Seattle Kraken. But they’ve earned a tough draw in the opening round in the Winnipeg Jets. To put this in hyperbolic wrestling announcer terms, it’s the irresistible force vs. the immovable object.

The Avalanche finished near the top of the NHL in goals per game. The Jets finished near the top of the NHL in preventing goals. Colorado has Nathan MacKinnon, the favorite to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP after establishing new career highs in goals (51) and points (138) this season. Winnipeg has Connor Hellebuyck, the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender and someone who might get his share of MVP support, as well.

It’s fire vs. water. It’s green light vs. red light. It could be the best opening-round series of the playoffs.


You’ve mentioned more than a few players hitting career highs statistically. What’s up with that?

Frankly, it’s a great time to be a star offensive player in the NHL. The goals per team per game dropped slightly this season from last season, but those averages remain the highest we’ve had since the mid-1990s. There are a lot of factors behind this, from the dilution of talent due to expansion, to rule changes that necessitated teams rethinking their roster constructions, to power plays being more efficient than they’ve been since the late 1980s.

But in the end, it’s the players. The NHL has never have a greater assemblage of world-class talent than right now.

There’s Auston Matthews flirting with 70 goals. There were 17 players scoring 40 or more goals; just 10 seasons ago, we had three. There’s both McDavid and Nikita Kucherov tallying 100 assists in a single season, joining Hockey Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr as the only players in NHL history to do so.

Hockey fans used to dream about a time when the name on the back could be as much a draw as the logo on the front, and we’re now living that dream.

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1:04

2024 NHL playoffs: The chase for the Stanley Cup is on

Emily Kaplan sets up the chase for the Stanley Cup as the NHL’s second season gets underway.


So who wins the Cup?

Um … uh … sorry, we’re too busy sketching out potential logos for the new NHL team in Utah now that this incarnation of the Arizona Coyotes just relocated. What about Blizzard? Instant rivalry with the Avalanche. The kids can call them “The Blizzy” for short.

While we can’t tell you who wins the Cup, we can say there are a handful of teams seeking their first one ever: the Panthers, Canucks, Jets and Predators. Seeing one of those droughts end would be fun. Of course, there’s another drought in Toronto dating back to 1967 that would be fun to see end, too.

Well, fun for Toronto. Maybe not so much the rest of Canada, we imagine.

Enjoy the Stanley Cup playoffs, everyone — the best postseason in sports.

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Knights’ Stone, Pietrangelo return to practice

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Knights' Stone, Pietrangelo return to practice

Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone and defenseman Alex Pietrangelo returned to practice Saturday as the team continues to monitor their progress ahead of Monday’s playoff opener against the Dallas Stars.

Stone has been out of the Golden Knights’ lineup since Feb. 20, when he was diagnosed with a lacerated spleen. It led to a long-term stint on injured reserve for the second year in a row. Last season, the 31-year-old had a second back surgery in a 13-month window that led to him being out of the lineup starting in mid-January before returning ahead of the team’s first-round series against the Winnipeg Jets.

“We’ll see how he responds with regard to his availability for Game 1,” Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon said.

Pietrangelo had a non-COVID illness in late March, McCrimmon said. He returned to games March 30 at Minnesota and April 2 against Vancouver, then was diagnosed with appendicitis. After undergoing an appendectomy, Pietrangelo sat out of practices while rehabilitating.

He said he was fully healed.

“It took a while,” Pietrangelo said. “I wasn’t too sure what the problem was. I’m glad to get that behind me just to recover. We took our time doing it the right way to make sure there was nothing to worry about. The last thing you want to do is go into a playoff game with that in the back of your mind.”

Prior to his injury, Stone was having the best season of his career. He scored 16 goals and had 53 points in 56 games. He was on pace to finish with what would have been a career-high 78 points while logging more than 19 minutes in average ice time.

His absence led to the Golden Knights being one of the most active teams at the NHL trade deadline. Moving Stone and his $9.5 million cap hit to long-term injured reserve created the necessary cap space for them to get a top-nine forward in Anthony Mantha, a top-pairing defenseman in Noah Hanifin and to make the shock trade to get a top-six forward in Tomas Hertl within the final hour of the deadline.

With no salary cap restrictions in the playoffs, the Golden Knights would be free to activate Stone without needing to worry about a corresponding financial move.

Stone’s return would give the Golden Knights another top-six forward who has been one of the most consistent players since he was traded to the club back in the 2018-19 season.

Last year, Stone scored 11 goals and finished with 23 points in 22 games to help the Golden Knights win their first Stanley Cup.

The Golden Knights advanced to the Stanley Cup Final after beating the Stars in six games during the Western Conference finals. This season, the Stars finished with the West’s best record and were a point behind the New York Rangers for the Presidents’ Trophy, while the Golden Knights secured the second and final Western Conference wild-card spot.

Also, Chandler Stephenson (undisclosed) and William Carrier (upper body) returned to practice. Stephenson missed the final two games of the regular season and Carrier didn’t play in the final 11 games.

Anthony Mantha (undisclosed) remained in a noncontact jersey, and Jonathan Marchessault and Ben Hutton took maintenance days.

“Returning to health is going to be one of the big keys for our team,” McCrimmon said. “We’re going to be healthier going into the playoffs than we have been for a while.”

Game 1 is set for 9:30 p.m. ET Monday at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.

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