It’s finally here.
After a truncated regular season and a more than four-month gap between meaningful games, the culmination of the 2019-20 NHL season has arrived.
Two teams that many pundits had in their preseason predictions — the Western Conference’s Dallas Stars and the Eastern Conference’s Tampa Bay Lightning — will now battle it out.
The Stars advanced to their first Stanley Cup appearance since 2000 on Monday after an overtime win in Game 5, knocking out the Golden Knights. On the flip side, the Lightning have firmly wiped away last year’s disappointment and will now get one day off after their overtime win over the Islanders before hitting the ice in the franchise’s second trip to the Final in the past decade (they lost in 2015 to the Blackhawks).
For Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, it’s a chance to win his second consecutive Stanley Cup, as he captured the 2019 title with the St. Louis Blues, while teammate Luke Schenn can match his brother Brayden who won with Maroon last year. On the flip side, all eyes will be on 65-year-old long-time bench guru and Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness, who was on Jon Cooper’s staff back in 2015 and will be aiming for his first taste from Lord Stanley’s Cup in his third final.
By the end of September, the NHL’s newest champion will be crowned. Be sure to soak it all in, hockey fans, because the start of the 2020-21 season is officially TBD.
Tampa Bay Lightning (-152) vs. Dallas Stars (+137): Schedule, breakdown, prediction
|1||Sat., Sept. 19||7:30 p.m.||NBC, fuboTV , SN, CBC, TVAS|
|2||Mon., Sept. 21||8 p.m.||NBCSN, fuboTV , SN, CBC, TVAS|
|3||Wed., Sept. 23||8 p.m.||NBCSN, fuboTV , SN, CBC, TVAS|
|4||Fri., Sept. 25||8 p.m.||NBC, fuboTV , SN, CBC, TVAS|
|5*||Sat., Sept. 26||8 p.m.||NBC, fuboTV , SN, CBC, TVAS|
|6*||Mon., Sept. 28||8 p.m.||NBC, fuboTV , SN, CBC, TVAS|
|7*||Wed., Sept. 30||8 p.m.||NBC, fuboTV , SN, CBC, TVAS|
For up-to-the-minute odds: Sportsinsider.com
Regular season series
Let’s be honest, the 2019-20 regular season was a lifetime ago but the fact that the Stars won in a sweep is bulletin board material for both squads.
The Jan. 27 contest saw currently “unfit to play” Stars netminder Ben Bishop in net and injured Lightning captain Steven Stamkos pot two goals. Current No. 1 tendy for the Stars, Anton Khudobin, earned the victory in the first meeting while Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy was handed the L’s in both games.
Dallas holds an overall record of 25-15-4 against Tampa Bay during the regular season, but this is the Stanley Cup Final and history is wiped clean.
|Dec. 19||Stars||Lightning||DAL, 4-3 (OT)|
|Jan. 27||Lightning||Stars||DAL, 3-2 (OT)|
Welp, the Stars are not the analytic darlings of this Stanley Cup Final, that’s for sure. They enter the series as the first team since the 1968 St. Louis Blues with a negative goal differential (62 goals for, 64 goals against in the bubble). They also had 48 fewer shots than Vegas in the five-game series (118-166), hold one of the worst Corsi For percentages (16th, 47.96), Fenwick For percentages (15th, 48.41) and have allowed more High-Density Chances For (169) than against (173) at 5v5 among the 24 teams that entered the bubble (per Natural Stat Trick).
Maybe Tyler Seguin’s response, when asked about his team’s winning despite the numbers, was correct: “It says analytics are overrated.”
Or maybe, it just means the Stars have found a way to win. They utilized depth scoring — have you met Joel Kiviranta yet? — from their forward group and have two defensemen in the top 5 on the points list (Miro Heiskanen, 22 points; John Klingberg, 16 points). Captain Jamie Benn has also come alive in the past few games and is riding a three-game goal-scoring streak.
As for the Lightning, they are an offensive juggernaut, with the likes of scoring leader Nikita Kucherov (26 points), Brayden Point (if he’s healthy), Victor Hedman and Ondrej Palat — and are dominating despite captain Steven Stamos not healthy enough to suit up for a single game.
The Lightning have scored almost a goal more than they’ve allowed (3.11 GF/GP to 2.21 GA/GP) in the postseason — a carryover from the regular season, when they scored an NHL-best 243 goals and 3.47 GF/GP. They have a 55.59 percent CF%, an Expected Goals For percentage of 57.30 and a bubble-best 29 HDGF. Basically, like Game 6’s overtime winner, don’t let the Lightning in close.
Edge: Lightning, but not by much.
The Dallas Stars are somehow getting the job done defensively despite the negative goal differential — and it doesn’t help that they’re an impressive 10-1 in one-goal games in the postseason.
“You’re looking at shots against, we’re more concerned about the chance against,” said Bowness after his team eliminated the Golden Knights. “Five on five, we were fine the whole series [against Vegas]. I know they took a lot of outside shots, we’ll give them that.”
In their third round, the Stars had the best save percentage (95.58) and SCSV% (90.38) of the four teams in the conference finals (according to Natural Stat Trick). A large part of the Stars’ defensive prowess is goaltender Anton Khudobin, who has been masterful in net.
As for Tampa Bay, they have their own top goalie in net in 2019 Vezina Trophy winner and 2020 Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy. And the guys in front of him defending the net aren’t too shabby either. Headlined by 2020 Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman, the depth chart includes Kevin Shattenkirk, Zach Bogosian and Ryan McDonagh on the blue line along with centerman Anthony Cirelli, who should have been a Selke Trophy finalist in 2020.
What can you say about Khudobin? He posted an NHL-best .930 save percentage during the regular season and with No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop out — Bishop, by the way, backstopped the Lightning to their 2015 run to the final — he’s been a calming force in between the pipes. He has a .920 save percentage in 19 games (18 starts) compared with Vasilevskiy’s .931 in 19 games. Against Vegas’ high-powered offense, he posted a .950 save percentage and then had this beauty of a response when they sent the Golden Knights packing:
At 5v5 both their save percentages rise, to .941 for the Lightning’s netminder and .928 for the Stars (per Natural Stat Trick). The one eye-popping number is GSAA, where Vasilevskiy’s at 6.64 and Khudobin’s at 0.77; however, when it’s about high-danger goals it’s all about Khudobin. He’s got a 4.63 HDGSAA compared with his counterpart’s 0.46.
Both guys have been to a final before — although Khudobin did it as a backup in 2013 for the Bruins’ Tuukka Rask and Vasilevskiy backed up Bishop.
Edge: Lightning by a hair.
The Lightning’s power play has struggled in the bubble, dropping from 23.1 percent in the regular season to 17.9; they did elevate it slightly to 19.1 against the Islanders as they scored four power-play goals in 21 opportunities. However, the struggles with the man advantage could have cost them the series considering they had four-minute power plays in the waning seconds of the third period and into overtime in Games 5 and 6 and did not score. Luckily for Tampa Bay, it only lost one of those contests.
Across the way, the Stars have elevated their time on the man advantage from 21.1 to 27.3. Benn and Radek Faksa (who has been unfit to play after missing the past two games of the Western Conference finals) lead the team with three power-play goals each.
The two teams are pretty even on the penalty kill, as Dallas has been effective 83.3 percent of the time with Tampa Bay effective 83.6 percent of the time.
Key players to watch
Joe Pavelski (DAL): The veteran forward basically strapped the San Jose Sharks to his back last season and led them to the Western Conference finals — and don’t expect anything less here. At 36, Pavelski knows his time is dwindling. And he’s been a force for Bowness, leading the team with rookie Denis Gurianov in goals with nine (he only had 14 in 67 regular season games).
Steven Stamkos (TBL): Sure, there are no guarantees that the Lightning’s captain even laces ’em up for a game, but if he does, it’ll change the entire complexion of the final. He’s been skating at Tampa’s practices and was on the ice (sans skates) for the team’s celebration with the Prince of Wales Trophy. Having Stamkos back in the lineup would not only bring an emotional lift to his team, but he’ll also bring along his 66 points in 57 games from the regular season. And remember that struggling power play for the Lightning? Stamkos led the team in power-play goals with 10.
Lightning vs. Stars playoff history
This is the first-ever meeting between the two franchises in the postseason.
Past five playoff appearances
Tampa Bay Lightning
|2019||Lost in first round to CBJ in four games|
|2018||Lost in conference finals to WSH in seven games|
|2016||Lost in conference finals to PIT in seven games|
|2015||Lost in Stanley Cup Final to CHI in six games|
|2014||Lost in first round to MTL in four games|
|2019||Lost in second round to STL in seven games|
|2016||Lost in second round to STL in seven games|
|2014||Lost in first round to ANA in six games|
|2008||Lost in conference finals to DET in six games|
|2007||Lost in conference quarterfinals to VAN in seven games|
Lightning vs. Stars prediction
Almost a year ago — when this season was in its infancy — everyone was thinking that Jon Cooper was on his way out of Tampa as the team was playing mediocre hockey. Instead, the Lightning picked things up and have been a force in the bubble. While everyone would love to see Rick Bowness finally get his Cup, his old bench boss is standing in his way.
This series will be a battle not only on the ice but behind the benches.
Prediction: Lightning in six
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