It’s not a massive surprise to see the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup final. They tied an NHL record with 62 wins a season ago and were determined to avenge last season’s humiliating first-round defeat. The fire burned so intensely that GM Julien BriseBois surrendered first-round draft picks in two trades this winter in hopes of balancing his roster out with more grit, bringing in Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow.
Job well done, sir. The Bolts were the class of the East entering the 24-team bubble, and here they are in the final.
But not too many of us had the Dallas Stars going all the way. We saw a solid team with star power on defense and great goaltending, yes, but an aging, pop-gun offense looked like it would hold Dallas back when the post-season arrived. Instead, the Stars have treated us to a rollercoaster of comebacks, scoring binges, upsets and surprise heroes, none bigger than Joel Kiviranta. They weren’t necessarily the team everyone expected to represent the West, but they sure have momentum – and respect – on their side now. It should be an eventful and exciting Stanley Cup final featuring interesting personalities on the ice and behind the bench.
So who wins the series? Let’s break down the matchup category by category.
Deciding which team has the edge in offense depends on which sample size you choose to trust. In the regular season? No contest. The Lightning led the NHL in goals per game and boasted the No. 5 power play, while the Stars finished 26th in goals per game. Of the 24 teams qualifying for the bubble tournament, only one scored less often than Dallas in the regular season.
The playoffs, however, have brought an awakening for the Stars’ scorers. Well, most of them. Breakout star defenseman Miro Heiskanen has led the way, of course, averaging better than a point per game, but Dallas has also gotten the balanced scoring distribution it’s lacked for years, with four different players notching eight or more goals, most notably Denis Gurianov, who had 20 as a rookie during the regular season as one of the league’s most efficient scorers on a per-60 basis. The Stars haven’t been a high-volume team in terms of shot generation – on the whole in the tournament, they’ve been outshot, outchanced and even outscored – but they’ve made their chances count. Their power play has been lethal, humming along at better than 27 percent.
The Lightning are who we thought they were, however. They had to grind to get goals on the stingy New York Islanders, but BriseBois has engineered this team so that it can win ugly when it has to. The Lightning badly outchanced the Isles in that mucky Eastern Conference final. When games open up and become track meets, which has happened plenty of times during Dallas’ run to the final, the Lightning can keep up there, too, even if injured center Steven Stamkos doesn’t return. With all-world talents like right winger Nikita Kucherov, defenseman Victor Hedman and center Brayden Point driving the play, the Bolts are still the most talent-rich team in the league.
For Dallas to keep up, it needs star center Tyler Seguin to find his touch. He’s scored twice in 20 games after an underwhelming regular season in which he managed just 17 goals in 69 games.
The Lightning and Stars both ranked among the better defensive teams in the NHL during the regular season, though Dallas relied more on its stellar goaltending from Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin to keep pucks out, while the Lightning were the better shot suppressors. The Lightning have remained elite at preventing pucks from reaching Vasilevskiy in these playoffs, allowing the second-fewest shots on goal per 60 in the 24-team field as well as the fourth-fewest scoring chances and third-fewest high danger chances per 60. It’s simply a chore to get around Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, and the Lightning boast several of the sport’s best two-way forwards, from Point to Anthony Cirelli to Ondrej Palat, not to mention Coleman and Goodrow.
The Stars have played a lot more firewagon hockey this post-season, allowing more than 30 shots per 60, with plenty of high-danger looks. That’s despite the fact they have Heiskanen and shutdown blueliner Esa Lindell thwarting attackers. But Dallas had to weather the storm against some high-event offensive teams in Colorado and Vegas. Any team would struggle to prevent chances against them.
Based on the game flow we’ve seen from Dallas and Tampa, we should expect a similar dynamic to what both teams have experienced so far. The Lightning should be the aggressor, with Dallas going into survival mode and hoping to score with counterattacks.
Andrei Vasilevskiy is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner and a finalist for the third consecutive season. He’s on the shortlist for the best all-around goaltenders in the game today.
"He’s the best goalie in the league, no questions asked," Hedman said during Tampa's Media Day Zoom call Friday. "He’s such a competitor back there. He’s never out of a play. He wants to have a shutout every night. We know that, and we’re trying to help him accomplish that."
Vasilevskiy is also smack in his prime at 26. You pick him over Khudobin, who is 34, 100 times out of 100 if you’re starting a franchise today.
But what about right now, in the bubble, to win one series? It’s close. Vasilevskiy’s overall numbers are sublime: a 1.81 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage are what every team dreams of from a starter during a playoff run. But his job has not been to steal games. It has been to ensure he makes the saves he’s supposed to and doesn’t lose games for a team dominating the play in front of him. Among 34 goalies with at least 100 minutes played at 5-on-5 in these playoffs, ‘Vasy’ faces the fourth-fewest shots and 10th-fewest high-danger shots per 60, good for the third-lowest expected goals against per 60.
Khudobin? He’s been as responsible as any Star for getting the team to the final. He ranks in the top 10 for most high-danger shots against per 60 and has faced almost five more shots than Vasilevskiy per 60 while ranking eighth in the 34-goalie sample in high-danger SP. Khudobin, aggressive, challenging shooters and making himself appear bigger than his 5-foot-11, 200-pound build in the net, is locked in right now. And it’s not the fluke some might believe it to be given he’s relieving the injured Bishop.
“I don’t know if you ever think about the run he could have in him, but you definitely see the compete he has in him, the compassion he has and just the great teammate he is," Seguin said during Dallas' Media Day Zoom call. "So I wouldn’t say any of us are shocked or that this was unexpected. He’s a hard worker. He’s always had a great work ethic in practice. I’ve known him for a long time back in the Boston days, so I know he’s got the experience. He’s been around for a Cup run. He’s seen it all. So I wouldn’t say this is unexpected, but it’s great to see, and we have a lot of confidence in him.
In regular-season play, based on goals saved above average per 60, Khudobin is the top rated goaltender in the league of the past two seasons combined. There’s reason to believe he can be Vasilevskiy’s equal across a seven-game series. If not, it won’t be a seven game series.
If we accept that the playoff version of the Stars’ power play can remain sustainable, special teams are a plus for them entering this series. No team in the field of 24 averages more shots on goal per 60 on the power play than Dallas during the tournament. The Stars have done well not to waste their opportunities. Meanwhile, Tampa’s power play has sputtered at 17.9 percent this post-season, down from 23.1 percent in the regular season. It’s glaringly obvious that the Bolts miss Stamkos there. His 10 power-play goals were a team high in the regular season. After converting on three of six power-play opportunities in their 8-2 rout over the Islanders in Game 1, the Bolts froze up, converting one of 15 power plays over the next five games.
Both teams have done a good job killing penalties during the playoffs. The Lightning’s penalty-killing forwards, from Cirelli to Coleman to Goodrow, are dynamite. The Stars have a true penalty killing ace on defense in Lindell, but Khudobin has been particularly marvellous. In 111 minutes shorthanded, he’s posted an .890 SP. For perspective: 55 goalies played at least 100 minutes shorthanded this regular season, and only seven had a better SP than .890.
If we’re looking squarely at experience, Tampa’s Jon Cooper gets the clear nod. Now in his eighth season with the Lightning, he’s the NHL’s longest-tenured coach. This year’s Stanley Cup final will be his second with the team, the first coming in 2015. He’s taken Tampa to the Eastern Conference final four times. He knows his group of players well and coached several of them all the way from a championship team in AHL Norfolk (Tampa’s affiliate at the time) to the NHL today.
But we can’t sleep on Bowness. Including the regular season and playoffs, since he took over the job from Jim Montgomery, the Stars are 33-21-5. Bowness' players are known to absolutely adore him, and freshness is often an advantage when it comes to coaching in the NHL. Players respond to new voices in the short term. His long and unlikely path to his position today, coaching a Stanley Cup finalist after so many decades bouncing around various coaching roles, embodies the Stars’ Cinderella mentality. Also, having worked under Cooper as an associate coach with the Lightning from 2013-14 through 2017-18, Bowness has intricate knowledge of Cooper's schemes and many Lightning players' tendencies.
" 'Bonesy' was awesome," Point said, looking back on Bowness' time with Tampa. "A guy with tons of experience. So much knowledge, such a passion for the game. He was awesome, he was super good to me, and if you ask anybody who's ever played for him, they'd say the same thing."
If there’s any coaching edge on paper, you could argue the momentum is on Bowness’ side despite the fact Cooper is among the league’s best and most accomplished coaches today.
Both teams have injuries to navigate. The Stars are still without their actual starting goaltender Bishop but haven’t felt that sting with Khudobin playing so well. They will likely begin the series without key two-way center Radek Faksa.
The Lightning’s injuries might have a greater impact on the series, however. Stamkos still isn't close to a return. Point, meanwhile, was hobbled during the Islanders series and missed Games 3 and 5 with his unknown ailment. The Bolts lost both those games. Point returned to play 25-plus minutes in Game 6, but the fact he was a game-time decision means he’s clearly not 100 percent. What version of Point will Tampa get for the final?
The Stars are an older team, especially at forward, with the likes of Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov, Corey Perry and Joe Pavelski well into their 30s. There thus may be a sense of “now or never” during this surprisingly deep post-season run in which they upset arguably the top two Western Conference favorites in consecutive series.
"You hope so," Pavelski said about the idea that age could be a motivator. "You’re just trying to find it. It’s not something we’re going to hang our hats on one way or another. We’re going to go out and play and compete. It’s been fun being in that locker room and competing with those guys and the ups and downs and going through it. Guys have stepped up in big ways on and off the ice. And it’s been a lot of fun to be a part of."
So if you believe in momentum? Dallas has the edge. The Stars are also more rested, having wrapped up their series Monday night. Tampa played double overtime Tuesday and overtime Thursday to close out its series with the Isles.
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ CONSENSUS PREDICTION
If we’re picking with our hearts, there’s a little voice championing Dallas’ story, starring unlikely protagonists such as Bowness, Khudobin and, of course, household name Kiviranta. But if you look at the most basic and important element of the game – 5-on-5 play – the Lightning are the better team. They’ve been the NHL’s most balanced team all season. We picked them to win the 2020 Stanley Cup at the start of the regular season. We picked them to win it at the start of the 24-team tournament, too. So we’re not turning back. BriseBois has perfected a championship recipe.
Pick: Lightning in six games
Advanced stats courtesy of naturalstattrick.com