It has been seven weeks since the NHL began their postseason in their two-city bubble format with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. Toronto hosted the Eastern Conference matchups while Edmonton hosted the Western Conference. The grind in the two hub cities reaches its climax as the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning square off to win the ultimate prize: Lord Stanley’s Cup.
The Stars have reached the final for the first time in 20 years as their last appearance saw them lose in six games to the New Jersey Devils one year after defeating the Buffalo Sabres to win their only Stanley Cup in six games. Since then, the Stars have lost three times to the St. Louis Blues in the second round (including a double-overtime Game 7 last year) and fell to the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals in 2008.
Dallas faced adversity as they had to fire their coach, Jim Montgomery, due to his alcohol abuse. Long-time coach Rick Bowness took over in mid-December, a coach whose has bounced around different teams including the expansion Ottawa Senators.
The Stars entered the postseason as one of the top four teams in the west, earning a spot in the round-robin tournament to determine seeding. This was despite scoring the third-fewest goals in the NHL regular season. They blew a 3-1 lead to the Vegas Golden Knights and were blown out 4-0 by the Colorado Avalanche. However, they defeated the Blues 2-1 to earn the third seed and faced the Calgary Flames in the first round.
Despite falling behind in the series 2-1, the Stars prevailed, winning Game 4 5-4 in overtime, Game 5 2-1 and finished off the Flames in Game 6 7-3 after trailing 3-0 in the first period. They would face the Avalanche in the second round, the same team which beat them down 4-0 in the round robin. Known for their defensive prowess, the Stars adjusted, outplaying the Avs at their own game with speed and aggression in the offensive zone.
It was a hard-fought series as the banged-up Avs forced a Game 7. The Stars would redeem last year’s failure against the Blues as Joel Kiviranta scored a hat-trick, including the game-winner in overtime.
The Stars handled the Golden Knights in five games, advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Stars emphasize aggressive forechecking and backchecking while blocking shots and hitting opposition who dares to enter their territory. The leader of this unit has been the star of the playoffs for the team in defenseman Miro Heiskanen, who leads the team with 22 points (5G,17A). He sets the tone for the defense, making him a valuable piece on their lineup.
Captain Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov, Denis Gurianov and free-agent acquisition Joe Pavelski have been the key scorers for this team as each have scored at least eight goals during this postseason run. The Stars have scored when needed with many clutch goals including four overtime game-winners. Goaltender Anton Khudobin must be praised as the long-time journeyman has had to play nearly every game this postseason due to starter Ben Bishop’s injury. He has compiled a 12-6 record with a .920 save percentage (SV%), a huge contribution for a goaltender who has not found consistent starting spots in the NHL.
The Stars are looking to overcome 20 years of failure and win their second cup. Standing in their way is another team looking to win their second Stanley Cup and overcome failure in recent years in the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Tampa Bay won their first Stanley Cup in 2004 as they defeated the Flames in seven games. In recent years, the Lightning have been one of the most consistent teams in the Eastern Conference the last few seasons but have not won a Stanley Cup with this current core. Their opportunities for a Stanley Cup have fallen short in recent years with disappointing performances in the biggest games. In 2015, they made it the Stanley Cup Final and took a 2-1 lead in their series against the Chicago Blackhawks, only to lose their final three games and lost in six games. The following season, the Lightning led 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins; then proceeded to lose games six and seven.
In 2018, they laid an egg in Game 7 of the conference finals once again as they were blanked 4-0 by the Washington Capitals. The following saw a colossal failure mentioned repeatedly during this playoff run as they were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round as the President’s Trophy winner, including blowing a 3-0 lead in Game 1.
In this postseason, despite losing long-time stalwart Steven Stamkos to injury, the Lightning have lived up to their talent level, grinding their way back to the Stanley Cup Final. It wasn’t easy as they faced the Blue Jackets once again in the first round. Game 1 saw them win 2-1 in FIVE overtimes as Brayden Point scored the winner. After losing Game 2, the Lightning would get their revenge as they finished off the Blue Jackets in five games.
Their next two series saw them defeat the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders in five and six games respectively (netting three overtime winners, advancing to the final for the third time in team history and their first time since 2015).
The Lightning, for years, have been one of the league’s best offenses, leading the league in scoring in this year’s regular season. Despite the absence of Stamkos, the offense has produced at a level many expect to see from this team. Leading the way has been the dynamic duo of Nikita Kucherov and Point who have contributed 26 and 25 points respectively. Their playmaking and clutch goal-scoring have carried this team to success.
However, the defending has been huge. Outside of their 5-3 loss in Game 3 against the Islanders, they only allowed seven goals in their other five games. They have been more physical on that side of the ice, a welcome change from the finesse style from the past few years. The goaltending of Andrei Vasilevski has provide this team with consistency and stability. He has a 14-5 record with a .931 SV% and 1.82 goals-against allowed (GAA).
This will be a tightly-contested battle for the Stanley Cup. Both teams can play fast, physical and have great goaltending. While the Stars emphasize defense and the Lightning rely on the offense, both teams can match each other’s’ strengths. I have been fooled by the Stars this postseason as I predicted them to lose all three of their previous series. For this final, I will not pick against them as their timely goal-scoring and physical defense will be too much for Tampa Bay to overcome. The Stars will win their second Stanley Cup in team history.
Prediction: Stars in 7