It’s here. The Stanley Cup Finals begin tonight and your Tampa Bay Lightning are taking on the Dallas Stars for the right to be called a champion. If you haven’t already, check out the interview I had with Josh Clark to get more information about the Western Conference Champions before the series.
Game one is a tone setter. It’s a way to kick things off on a positive note or realize the hill in front of you that you’ll have to climb. There is no hill steeper than that of the final series in the NHL playoffs. But how did we get here? For the Lightning, it was exorcising the demons of 2019 with a 4-1 dismissal of the Columbus Blue Jackets followed by a gentlemen’s sweep of the Boston Bruins before eliminating the New York Islanders 4-2.
For the Dallas Stars, things began with a 4-2 series win over the Calgary Flames, then a tough series against the Colorado Avalanche that went the distance, and finally making quick work of the Vegas Golden Knights in just five games.
It’s been the Anton Khudobin show for the Stars as the backup has become the star. Ben Bishop is still unfit to play – and even if he were healthy I find it hard to believe he would replace Khudobin in this series.
The Lightning were 0-2 against Dallas this season, losing the first game 4-3 in overtime at home then 3-2 in overtime at Dallas. However, as head coach of the Lightning, Jon Cooper holds an 8-3-3 record against the Stars since 2014 with the Bolts holding a +13 goal differential in those fourteen games.
But this is the Stanley Cup – and those stats from past games could easily be thrown out.
The Stars are a frustratingly difficult defensive team – not unlike all the other teams the Lightning have faced in the bubble – in that they don’t allow opponents in front of the net for second and third opportunities. They slow the game down, frustrate you, and capitalize off your mistakes. Sounds like the last series, right? Oh, and the first round? And a little of the second round. Okay – it sounds like every round so far.
Tampa Bay is averaging almost a full goal per game more than the Stars this postseason while allowing barely more than .2 (2.77 versus 2.52) more goals per game. What is really concerning is Tampa Bay’s issues on the power play.
The Lightning currently sit with a 23.1% conversion rate on the man advantage while the Stars have a kill rate of 79.7%. Sounds advantageous, right? Well, the Lightning numbers are a wee inflated given the huge day they had against the Bruins – three power play goals in game three – and they have not converted a power play since game three and are 0-for their last 11 chances. If the Lightning want to win this series, they have to be better on the power play.
Andrei Vasilevskiy remains the only goalie of any team to enter the bubble to play every minute of every game and he is certainly well within the Conn Smythe conversation should the Lightning go on to win the series. Though, oddly enough, he has yet to get a shutout in the playoffs. Vasy has 14 wins and a .931 save percentage and an average goals against of 1.82. On the flip side, Khudobin has 12 wins and 6 losses with a .920 save percentage and an average goals against of 2.62. While facing 27 more shots, Khudobin has allowed nine more goals than Vasy and has nearly 200 fewer on ice minutes than the Bolts’ star goalie.
All eyes will be on Brayden Point as he continues to shine in the postseason but has been hampered with a recent injury. Will he provide the same level of intensity, energy, and production in the Finals that he has all postseason long? Meanwhile, Jamie Benn has taken his game to a level many didn’t believe he could ever reach again. Throw in Joe Pavelski and Victor Hedman – who are both tied with Point with nine goals each – and you’re talking about the four leaders in the clubhouse for the Conn Smythe.
The Lightning have proved that they can beat any team they face at their own game. It doesn’t matter if the Bolts play their style or their opponents – they will find a way to win. This is going to be the toughest series so far as neither team will be willing to give an inch. Only two teams left, having spent nearly two months in the bubble, and no one wants it to be all for nothing. It’s been crazy, it’s been unconventional, but no one can say that it hasn’t been absolutely grueling for these players to get through these playoffs. In the end, the Lightning have grown before our very eyes as a team that was cocky in 2015 in the Stanley Cup Finals, to heartbreaks in 2016, 2018, and 2019, to now – a mature team that has faced adversity and instead of crumbling they’ve accepted the challenge to be better. I can’t see them getting this far and not finishing the job.
Series Prediction: Lightning in 6
Game One Information:
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Rogers Place – Edmonton, Alberta
TV Broadcast: NBC, CBC, TVAS, SN
Radio Broadcast: 970 WFLA
Live Stream: Click Here