Since the final horn sounded on April 16th, 2019 and a dejected Tampa Bay Lightning squad watched the Columbus Blue Jackets celebrate their shocking four-game sweep in the first round, everything this organization has done has been to get to this very point. Maybe not this spot, after all who could have predicted a Stanley Cup Final series would take place in Edmonton?
Location aside, the Tampa Bay Lightning are playing in the Final because of the work their general manager put in off the ice and the effort that all of the players put in on it. They’ve had lucky bounces (and pick plays by linesmen), endured supreme goaltending efforts against them, overcome injuries to key players and captains, vanquished rivals, avenged embarrassments, and navigated all that goes with playoff hockey.
Their reward - another opponent that specializes in denying offense and wearing out the teams they play against. Great. It’s tempting to re-run the series preview from the Columbus match-up and just go from there, but that doesn’t seem fair to you, our loyal readers. So let’s find a new way to say the Lightning have to deal with a team that blocks a lot of shots and looks to counter off of mistakes.
First and foremost, if you’re thinking that this is going to be a cakewalk for the Bolts because the stats show that Tampa Bay is “better”, please dissuade yourself of that notion right now. The next four-to-seven games are going to be a grind. Both teams are really good at keeping teams from getting easy shots at the netminders and running up and down the ice. Just because it isn’t going to be dasher-to-dasher rushes up and down the ice doesn’t mean it isn’t going to be entertaining.
There is plenty of talent on both sides of the ice. Just because NBC hasn’t shown them in commercials prior to twenty-four hours ago doesn’t mean they aren’t good. Lightning fans are familiar with the dynamic play of Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman. Now get ready to see how good John Klingberg, Jamie Benn, and Denis Gurlanov are at hockey. We have Mikhail Sergachev as our up-and-coming young defenseman while they have Miro Heiskanen.
To borrow a boxing cliche - “Styles make fights”. It’s not entertaining to watch two counter-punchers wander around a ring waiting for the other to throw the first punch. Having two wild swingers in the ring at the same time tends to lead to more random collisions and head butts than it does actual punches being landed. What makes the Lightning versus the Stars intriguing is that the the things the teams like to do best meet head on.
The Lightning like to drive their offense from the slot and middle of the ice. The Stars excel at preventing their opponents from taking shots from that very area. At the opposite end of the ice, Dallas likes to get in close and score. As you can guess, the Bolts have done a fine job of limiting those high-danger chances.
Don’t expect either team to suddenly change their ways and try something else. We’re too far in for that. Instead, the winner of this series is going to be the team that finds away to execute their system better. Are the Lightning going to be able to move the puck quickly enough to avoid the skirmishers the Stars send out to block their shots? Can Dallas find room in front of Andrei Vasilevskiy and capitalize on second and third shot opportunities?
Answer those questions and you’ll most likely figure out who is going to win the series. Unless, of course, one of the goaltenders decides to steal the series. That’s the beauty of hockey, you can do everything right and still lose a seven-game series because a goaltender decided he was going to stop every shot that gets through.
It’s an interesting goaltender match-up. On one side you have Andrei Vasilevskiy, the undisputed number one, the franchise goaltender who still has a long career ahead of him (hopefully a successful one based on that extension that kicks in next season). For Dallas it’s Anton Khudobin, the veteran journeyman who has never started more than 37 games in a season. If old friend Ben Bishop hadn’t been injured, Khudobin may not have seen the ice. Instead he’s gone 12-6 with a 2.62 GAA , a .920 SV% and is garnering some Conn Smythe talk.
Can Khudobin keep the solid play going? Do we see Ben Bishop if he’s declared fit to play by the team? Will the toll of playing every single minute of the Lightning’s playoff journey so far eventually wear on Vasilevskiy? Does Coach Cooper start him on both ends of the Game Four/ Game Five back-to-back (there’s no way Game Four is going less than three overtimes, by the way) or is he forced to start Curtis McElhinney on 198 days of rest?
The teams may have different styles, but their results are pretty much the same. They don’t mind playing overtime: the Stars are 4-0 while the Lightning are 5-1. They’ve killed penalties at similar rates (84.5% for Dallas, 83.6% for Tampa Bay) and neither team likes ceding goals or shots against. Nor do they mind getting offense from the blue line (there is a good chance that the leading shot-taker from both teams ends up being a defender). Nobody outside of Dallas likes Corey Perry and nobody outside of Tampa likes Cedric Paquette.
Dallas does spread their goal scoring out between their lines a little more than the Lightning do and their power play has been a bit more successful. The Lightning’s top line has been more dominant, but the Stars get a little more production out of their second line.
The Lightning may be a little bit better at all areas of the game, but it’s not such a difference that it’ll lead to a blowout. Health is also going to be a factor. Is one full day off enough to fill Brayden Point’s energy bar up to 100%? No, but even at 75% he’s probably the best player on the ice. Another factor could be Anthony Cirelli’s knee. Adrenaline could have carried him through Thursday’s game, but managing a sore knee over two weeks could be difficult.
The line-up could be boosted by the return of Steven Stamkos, but it likely won’t happen in Game One. Coach Cooper is going to have to rely on the players that have been out there game-in and game-out.
So how does this series play out?
The Dallas Stars win if:
- Anton Khudobin continues to play like a number one goaltender.
- Their power play provides offense
- They are able to get goals from more than one line
The Tampa Bay Lightning win if:
- Brayden Point stays healthy
- The second line finds its scoring touch.
No matter what happens, make sure you enjoy the ride. There have been a lot of less-than-optimal things happening this year, the Tampa Bay Lightning run to the Cup has not been one of those. Remember that one loss or one bad play does not mean a series is lost. Take time to savor the goals and the victories. Be proud of this team.
Prediction: Lightning win in seven games, four of them go to overtime.