After months of play inside the NHL’s bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto, the Stanley Cup Final finally has its two representatives from the Eastern and Western Conferences: the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Dallas Stars.
Out of the Eastern Conference, the Lightning took the long road, playing multiple overtime games in each of their series en route to the Stanley Cup Final. Despite not having star forward Steven Stamkos in their lineup, they didn’t let the marathon games drain them or drag them down, rolling through the Columbus Blue Jackets, Boston Bruins and New York Islanders in the process.
They needed just five games to take down the Blue Jackets, albeit playing in five overtimes in Game 1 and another overtime in the series-clinching Game 5. Five more games took down the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins, albeit with Jaroslav Halak in Boston’s net rather than regular starter Tuukka Rask.
The series against the Islanders, however, was arguably the best way to judge what you’ll get from the Lightning, both because of the talent and the timing.
They squared off against a full-strength Islanders squad, which was in the midst of a Cinderella run as the sixth seed out of the Eastern Conference. Tampa Bay was back at the closest they can get to full strength at this point, as Nikita Kucherov returned to the lineup for Game 1.
They were still without Steven Stamkos, who has been out for the entirety of the postseason, but were still able to produce offensively without him.
With eight goals in Game 1, the Lightning proved that they were a force to be reckoned with. They further proved they could win close games with a 2-1 victory in Game 2, and got back to their scoring ways with a 4-1 win in Game 4.
A double-overtime loss in Game 5 didn’t deter them from their goal, and they closed out the Islanders with a 2-1 overtime win on a game-winner from Anthony Cirelli to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
On the other end, the Stars weren’t big fans of grinding out close wins in defensive battles in the early part of their time in the bubble. Instead, they put on continuous offensive clinics in their run through the Western Conference, taking out the Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights in their journey.
They put up 21 goals in six games against the Flames and a whopping 28 in seven games against the Avalanche, but found a way to win with just nine goals in five games against the Golden Knights.
Through it all, they managed to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2000, all while giving up more goals and shots than they themselves could put up throughout the entirety of the postseason.
Over the span of their first 21 games in Edmonton, the Stars were outscored 64-62 by their opponents, and gave up 48 more shots to the Golden Knights than they could compile in the five-game series.
Big-time losses against the Avalanche, specifically a 6-3 defeat in Game 5 and a 4-1 loss in Game 6, skew the numbers in their opponents’ favor. But, a 7-3 win to close out the Flames in the first round showcase what they can do when their offense gets going.
On the other hand, they got their defense in order at the perfect time, winning all four of their games in the Western Conference Final by a one-goal margin. They take a three-game winning streak into the Stanley Cup Final, and are riding a wave of momentum in their search for their second title in franchise history.
Goaltending will be the name of the game in this series, considering the fact that both teams bring lots of offensive talent to the table.
Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy will look to continue his impressive run in net for Tampa Bay, holding a 14-5 record in the 2020 postseason with an astonishing 1.82 goals against average and .931 save percentage.
Meanwhile, Stars goalie Anton Khudobin will need to keep up the pace set in the series against the Golden Knights, and will look to improve on his 12-6 postseason record, 2.62 goals against average and .920 save percentage.
Hoping to foil those two goalies’ plans will be a wide range of stars (no pun intended) across both benches. Dallas’ leading goal scorers Joe Pavelski and Denis Gurianov (nine goals each) and Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov (eight goals each) will continue their pursuit of double-digit goal totals.
For Tampa Bay, Victor Hedman and Brayden Point (nine goals each) will look to continue to serve as offensive heroes for the Lightning, with Ondrej Palat (eight goals) and Nikita Kucherov (six goals) right on their heels.
Given the recent strength in goaltending for both sides, it’s hard to imagine any blowouts when the action gets going on September 19.
But, with the variety that we’ve seen from the Stars and the ability for the Lightning to turn it on in a moment’s notice, don’t be shocked if there are some high-scoring, hard-fought, close games throughout the Stanley Cup Final’s duration.
In the end, the Lightning seem like a more well-rounded team with a stronger presence in net, combined with a slew of experience in close games throughout this postseason. That should be enough to get the job done, though it will likely take a full seven games before they’re able to hoist the Stanley Cup in Edmonton.
Prediction: Lightning win in seven games
Game 1: Saturday, September 19 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Game 2: Monday, September 21 at 8 p.m. ET
Game 3: Wednesday, September 23 at 8 p.m. ET
Game 4: Friday, September 25 at 8 p.m. ET
Game 5 (if necessary): Saturday, September 26 at 8 p.m. ET
Game 6 (if necessary): Monday, September 28 at 8 p.m. ET
Game 7 (if necessary): Wednesday, September 30 at 8 p.m. ET