About one-and-a-half years ago, long before COVID-19 was ever a thought, the Tampa Bay Lightning were knocked out the first round of the National Hockey League (NHL) playoffs in one of sport’s biggest upsets. In 2018-19, Tampa Bay racked up 128 points, tying the record for the best regular season ever. That spring, the Eastern Conference’s eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets (a team that trailed 3-0 in Game 1) completed the unlikeliest of sweeps, sending the Lightning home without ever winning a single postseason game.
The Dallas Stars haven’t advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals since the summer of 2000. They missed the playoffs in eight of the last 11 years. Even as the Stars were emerging as a potential contender, in December 2018 Dallas CEO Jim Lites called out the team’s top two forwards, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, for their subpar play.
Meanwhile, current head coach Rick Bowness was fired after his first full season as a coach (1991-92 with the Boston Bruins), then endured four brutal years a coach of the Ottawa Senators, going 39-178-18. His most recent stint as a head coach lasted just 20 games, in which he guided the Phoenix Coyotes to two wins in an interim stint. The team’s red-hot goaltender, 34-year-old Anton Khudobin, appeared in two postseason games prior to 2020.
Clearly, the storyline of redemption is running strong with both clubs, which represent the NHL’s first all “Sun Belt” Stanley Cup Final. Ironically, this first-ever September final will take place in Edmonton, the league’s northernmost city. Rogers Place will host a fanless championship series that should prove memorable.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars
Game 1: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m.
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m.
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m.
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m.
*Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m.
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m.
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m.
All times in Eastern; *-designates game if necessary.
How Tampa Bay got to the Stanley Cup Finals
Tampa Bay is on a roll, having dispatched title favorite Boston in five games, then the sizzling-hot Islanders, the only qualifying round team to make the Conference Finals, in six. The Lightning are doing exactly what they could not do in the playoffs last spring: win close games, as well as gritty, physical contests. Series victories over Columbus, Boston and New York required exactly that.
The Lightning’s top line, which has been banged up at times during the playoffs, is leading the way. Nikita Kucherov tops all Tampa Bay players with 26 points, while red-hot Ondrej Palat has eight goals. Brayden Point has been the straw that stirs the drink, posting a team-leading nine goals and 25 points in just 17 games.
Point, along with all-world defenseman Victor Hedman (team-leading nine goals and an average ice-time of 26:31 per game) are the team’s current favorites to win the Conn Smythe Trophy. Don’t sleep on goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. The 2019 Vezina Trophy winner from Tyumen, Russia, posted a 14-5-0 record along with a 1.82 goals against average (GAA) and .931 save percentage (SP), in guiding Tampa Bay to within four wins from a Stanley Cup.
Beyond these focal point players, Tampa Bay is extremely deep. The Lightning continue to win without captain Steven Stamkos, and you can thank the efforts from players like Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, Alex Killorn, Barclay Goodrow and Anthony Cirelli for a lot of that success. On the blue line Hedman is joined by the likes Kevin Shattenkirk, Mikhail Sergachev and Ryan McDonagh—who have all been great in the playoffs.
How Dallas got to the Stanley Cup Finals
Dallas enters the finals coming off a pair of upsets over Colorado and Vegas, after winning a tight series over Calgary to begin the playoffs. This Stars team is certainly battle-tested, but what makes the Stars a tough foe is how many ways they can beat you.
With a lead, they can turn the game over to an unbelievable group of top-four defenseman: Miro Heiskanen (team-leading 22 points), John Klingberg, Jamie Oleksiak and Esa Lindell, who can just close games out and rarely fumble a lead. If they trail in a game, the Stars have stars spread throughout their lineup who can score timely goals, including Heiskanen and Klingberg. Veteran captain Jamie Benn (18 points), Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov are the top scoring threats. However, Dallas’ second line, led by Denis Guirianov and Joe Pavelski (team-leading nine goals each), is dynamic. Same goes for the third line led by Roope Hintz and Radek Faksa.
In goal, Khudobin isn’t putting together historic postseason numbers (12-6-0, 2.62 GAA and .920 SP), but those stats came after series victories over the Avalanche and Golden Knights, two of the NHL’s best offensive clubs. If Khudobin does falter at all in the finals, long-time starter Ben Bishop, considered one of the league’s top netminders, waits in the wings.
The Finals Verdict
To capture the second Cup in franchise history, the Stars will have to outlast one of the NHL’s best offensive teams. For Tampa Bay to win its second championship, it must endure and overcome all the obstacles presented by this Stars team: patient, resilient, and defensively sound.
With a slight edge in just about all categories, except maybe physical play, I like Tampa Bay to win the Stanley Cup in convincing fashion, needing five games to overcome the Stars. Even still, this should be a razor tight series, and Lightning must to be ready to withstand the crazy, in-game momentum swings that the Stars are known for. Dallas never gives up on anything, and they will not in the finals until the final buzzer sounds.