The Stanley Cup Final begins tonight and a compelling matchup between two Sunbelt franchises awaits hockey fans.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that has been among the better squads in the Eastern Conference for the better part of this decade, are winners of the Prince of Wales Trophy for the second time in six years. Despite reaching the Conference Final five times within the last decade, Tampa had somewhat earned a reputation as a team that could never quite break through to the next level. But thanks to series wins over the Columbus Blue Jackets, Boston Bruins and New York Islanders, they are looking to win their first championship since 2004.
The Clarence Campbell Bowl-winning Dallas Stars, meanwhile, are in the Final for the first time since 2000 and have been red-hot in postseason play. Their only championship came in 1999 at the expense of the Buffalo Sabres, who were defeated thanks to perhaps the most controversial goal in NHL history by Brett Hull.
This matchup should be quite entertaining. Here’s the low-down on each team going into Game One tonight:
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
This year’s Lightning outfit is deeper than they’ve ever been. From top to bottom, Tampa has few weaknesses and have a legitimate chance to bring home the bacon.
Youngsters like Brayden Point, Mikhail Sergachev, Yanni Gourde and Anthony Cirelli and imports like Kevin Shattenkirk and Ryan McDonagh have joined forces with Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn to build a juggernaut. Andrei Vasilevskiy is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the league’s best goaltender, and defenseman Victor Hedman is the favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs after tying Hall of Famers Bobby Orr and Brad Park for the third-most goals scored in a single postseason.
One criticism of the Bolts in recent years is that they were always pretty but not gritty – meaning they were long on talent, but short on toughness. Thanks to moves by general manager Julien BriseBois and coach Jon Cooper to bring in some sandpaper in the form of Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman, Pat Maroon, Luke Schenn and Zach Bogosian, Tampa Bay now has a much more complete roster than in years past.
Captain Steven Stamkos, one of the NHL’s best pure snipers, has missed the entire postseason due to injury, and the Bolts’ powerplay has sputtered without him – operating at a clip of about 17 percent compared to about 23 percent in the regular season. The team’s longest-tenured player may be able to suit up in the Final after taking part in practice prior to Game One.
The Dallas Stars are an interesting outfit. They started the season 1-7-1 and rebounded by going 14-1-1 in their next 16 games. Coach Jim Montgomery was fired by general manager Jim Nill during that stretch and was replaced by assistant coach (and former Lightning assistant) Rick Bowness, and the Stars responded by becoming dominant throughout the months of January and February. After a six-game winless streak in March – and the pause of the season due to COVID-19 – Dallas has gotten to the Final for the fifth time in franchise history thanks to series wins over the Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights.
Goaltender Anton Khubodin has performed well while regular starter Ben Bishop has nursed an injury, as have defensemen Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg. During the regular season, the Stars’ big guns – Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov – all saw their statistical outputs drop off, as did free agent signings Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry. Benn, Pavelski, Radulov and Perry have picked up their play in the postseason, but Seguin has, perplexingly, continued to struggle.
Veterans like Andrej Sekera, Andrew Cogliano, Mattias Janmark, Blake Comeau and Jamie Oleksiak have supplemented fresh faces like Denis Gurianov, Radek Faksa, Roope Hintz, Esa Lindell and Joel Kiviranta to round out Dallas’ roster and form a strong ensemble.
A big factor in the Stars’ success has been the effectiveness of their powerplay. It has been clicking at a rate of 27.3 percent, and if the Stars want to win the Cup, they will need to continue to take advantage of the chances they have with the man-advantage.
- Believe it or not, for the first time in league history the Stanley Cup will come down to a head coach (Cooper) and his former assistant (Bowness). Bowness was on Tampa’s staff for five years.
- In 38 years as a coach or an assistant, Bowness has reached the Final for just the third time. His previous two trips were in 2011 with the Vancouver Canucks, losing to the Bruins in seven games, and falling to the Chicago Blackhawks with Tampa in 2015.
- Ironically, the Lightning have tied the 1999 Dallas Stars’ record for having won three postseason series on overtime goals. Dallas emerged victorious on goals by Hull, Mike Modano and Joe Nieuwendyk, while the Bolts knocked out their three opponents with goals in extra time by Point, Hedman and Cirelli.
- Vasilevskiy and Khudobin are vying to become just the second Russian-born goaltender to win the Stanley Cup (Nikolai Khabibulin won it with Tampa in 2004).
- According to Dan Rosen of nhl.com, Maroon is trying to become just the fourth player in the expansion era to win the Cup in back-to-back years with two different teams. Having won it last year with the St. Louis Blues, Maroon would join Mark Hatigan (’08, ’07), Cory Stillman (’06, ’04) and Claude Lemieux (’96, ’95) should he win.
- Stars goaltending coach Jeff Reese coached the same position for the Bolts when they won the Cup in 2004. Ben Bishop was the Lightning’s starter in net during their run to the Final in 2015.
Lightning in seven. Dallas will give the Bolts all they can handle, but Tampa Bay will come out of the series with their long-sought after second Stanley Cup championship.