Final is a Case of Best-on-Best...And it's Not Even Close - The Hockey News on Sports Illustrated

Final is a Case of Best-on-Best...And it's Not Even Close

The Tampa Bay Lightning are one game away from winning the Stanley Cup because their best players have taken over the series, while the Dallas Stars' top performers are hurting their cause.
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If you include the fact they had a shootout win in the qualifying round when the playoffs first began roughly a year-and-a-half ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning have played almost 200 extra minutes of hockey in the form of overtimes. That’s an additional three-plus games. They’ve taken five periods to score and they’ve taken fewer than five minutes to score.

(The NHL records website already has the Lightning tied for second all-time in overtime wins in one playoff year after their 5-4 OT win in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final Friday night, which is pretty chintzy, since it is counting their shootout win over the Washington Capitals in the qualifying round as a playoff OT win. If there’s anything that deserves an asterisk in these playoffs, it’s that.)

So much was made of the Lightning changing the complexion of their roster this season and how it has led to their success. It’s hard to say whether the Lightning prior to 2019-20 would have gone into Game 5 of the final with a 6-1 (not 7-1) overtime record, but they are for one main reason. Their best players are bettering the Dallas Stars best players and it’s not even close. In fact, it’s a rout.

That much was confirmed in Game 4 when Jamie Benn, the Stars captain, took an undisciplined and foolish penalty away from his net. And as Tampa had done twice before on the power play, it made the Stars pay. It’s true that your best players have to be your best players in the playoffs. It’s also true that your best players can’t hurt you. And that’s what Benn did in Game 4. Meanwhile, the Lightning’s top line of Brayden Point between Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat is treating this series as if it owes them money. They’re not only scoring, but they’re controlling the play to the point where the Stars aren’t even getting any borderline chances because that trio is controlling the puck every time it is on the ice.

If the depth players on both teams are contributing equally, and that is pretty much the case in this series, it’s up to the star players to make the difference. And that is exactly what is happening here, with the Lightning’s best players making a positive difference and the Stars’ top players contributing almost nothing and, in fact, hurting the cause.

“They play with such skill and pace,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of Point’s line, “A lot of teams can play with pace, a lot of teams can play with skill. To be able to play with both is a special talent. All three of those guys can do that and it’s really hard to defend. I don’t even know that if we played against us that we’d be able to defend it. It’s a pleasure to watch those guys play. Their compete level is off the charts and the guys are really feeling it.”

That was no more on display than on Point’s first goal of the night, a set play on a breakout where he blew into the Dallas zone and took a tape-to-tape pass from Palat before beating Dallas goalie Anton Khudobin on a breakaway. You did not require top-shelf lip reading skills to see that Point yelled “What a f---ing pass!” to Palat during the celebration. “Pointer was huge,” said Lightning center Yanni Gourde. “That goal was amazing. You can see how much talent he has, the speed on that goal and the way he went around was pretty amazing. He was huge and he has been amazing for us.”

With the Lightning now one win away from the Stanley Cup, it has become clear the choice for winner of the Conn Smythe is down to three players if Tampa can close this out. You could make compelling cases for any one of Point, Nikita Kucherov or Victor Hedman. The first leads all playoff players in goals, the second leads all in points and the third leads all defensemen in both. There is really not a wrong choice at this point. It just so happens they are three of the Lightning’s best players and when your best players carry you the way they have, success is sure to follow.

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