My good friend and former Swedish hockey journalist Szymon Szemberg pointed out that a Stanley Cup final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Dallas Stars will be the southern-most final since the trophy was first awarded in 1893. And it will be played in the league’s northern-most market. Because 2020.
There are a number of interesting storylines and trends to watch in this year’s final, which begins Saturday night in front of no fans between two teams that have been sequestered for the better part of the past eight weeks. Lightning coach Jon Cooper said this will have been one of the hardest Cups to win in NHL history and he’s right. Whichever team hoists the 34.5 pound trophy over its head will have earned that privilege in a way no other team has before.
With that being said, here are some important things to watch entering the series:
1. The Stamkos Factor: Lightning captain Steven Stamkos hasn’t played so much as a single shift in these playoffs, but he hasn’t been ruled out for the final. Lightning GM Julien BriseBois said Friday that Stamkos is out for Game 1, but might find his way into the lineup at some point. Adding Stamkos would give the already-dangerous Lightning more depth and firepower up front. But on the other hand, the Lightning have won three series without him and inserting him cold into the lineup at this point could disrupt their rhythm.
2. Haven’t Benn There, Haven’t Done That: The Stars captain also has the potential to be a major difference maker in this series. Jamie Benn is appearing in his first Stanley Cup final at the age of 31 and after a very mediocre regular season, has been in beast mode in these playoffs. He has been physical, engaged, nasty and offensively productive – essentially the Jamie Benn who earlier in his career established himself as one of the league’s premier talents.
3. Hedman is Head Man: Speaking of beast mode, Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman is in it at the moment. Not only does he seem to be the only Lightning player to score goals with any consistency, he’s providing the team with huge minutes and solid play at both ends of the ice. If he continues his high level of play and the Lightning win, he’ll join Scott Stevens, Nicklas Lidstrom, Scott Niedermayer and Duncan Keith as the only defensemen to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in this millennium. (Although Chris Pronger was robbed of the award in 2007.)
4. All Hail Heiskanen: If the Stars win the Cup, the Conn Smythe may still go to a defenseman. A really young one. Miro Heiskanen of the Stars is showing on the biggest stage why he is one of the premier defensemen in the NHL. Not only does he lead the Stars in scoring, he’s often the focal point of everything the Stars do offensively. His poise under pressure has been a thing of beauty. “He does everything for you,” said Stars coach Rick Bowness. “You need a big play, he makes it. Sometimes your power play isn’t working or your 6-on-5 breakout isn’t working, give it to Miro. ‘Miro, get the puck in the zone.’ And he will.
5. New Faces in New Places: Both teams have benefitted in a big way from key moves they made in the off-season. The Dallas Stars doubled down on veteran experience when they signed both Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry as free agents. (Interestingly, Pavelski chose Dallas over Tampa Bay.) The Lightning, meanwhile, changed the complexion of their team by signing defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Luke Schenn and forward Patrick Maroon. Then at the trade deadline, they went out and got Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow and a team that seemed to rely on elite talent and nothing else suddenly became a far more difficult opponent. “I think we’re a pretty hard team to play against defensively,” Shattenkirk said. “The M.O. on the Lightning over the last few years is that they’re offensive and they’re skilled and the way to beat them is to play them hard and I think things have changed this year. The perception of our team, I think, will be changed after this playoff is over.”
6. We Want Goals, Though: As Cooper pointed out, the Lightning have played three series against some of the top defensive teams in the league and won them all. It will be more of the same against the Stars. The Lightning have played 14 games in which fewer than five goals have been scored and won 10 of them, which shows they’re now very comfortable playing in low-scoring games. But are they a little too comfortable? In Games 5 and 6 against the Eastern Conference final, instead of setting the pace of play with their speed and talent, they got sucked into the game the Islanders wanted to play. Playing a slower, more defensive game should be the default setting for the Lightning if their own game doesn’t work, but they have to do a better job of dictating the terms of engagement.
7. Khoudobin or…Khoudini: It seems every post-season there is a story that is so rich and compelling that it becomes a focal point. For the Stars, that story belongs to Anton Khudobin, the career backup goalie who has found himself stealing games for the Stars and made himself a serious candidate for the Conn Smythe. For the Stars to have a chance in this series, they’ll need that kind of play for at least four of the next seven games. The Stars, to their credit, have been outshot regularly, but they have done a very good job at keeping high-danger shots to a minimum. And against Vegas in the Western Conference final, they were masterful at keeping the Golden Knights from getting to the net.
My prediction: Lightning in six.