To echo what Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said after Saturday’s double-overtime loss, “No one thought this was going to be a sweep.” The battle between the Lightning and the Dallas Stars drags on to a sixth game because, well, both of these teams are really good.
Prior to the start of the series, most of the predictions had the two teams battling it out for six or seven games, so should it be surprising to have reached that point? Not at all. It’s been pretty much the tough back-and-forth grind it out battle that most of the talking heads were expecting. While there have been few thrilling rushes up and down the ice it has been good hockey to watch (even if no one is actually watching outside of Dallas and the Tampa Bay area).
Throughout the games, the Lightning have seemed to control the majority of play. Possession numbers seem to match the eye test as well. Dallas has had success in waves, keeping the Lightning in their zone for stretches of time and tilting the ice occasionally. When they’ve done that, they’ve scored on their opportunities and have kept the series close despite Tampa Bay dominating the possession stats.
Both teams are relying on what got them to the Finals and it’s still undetermined as to whose strategy will prevail. The Lightning have used their dominating top line and a lethal power play to hold the three-games-to-two advantage in the series, while Dallas has used opportunistic goal scoring and a Conn Smythe-level performance from Anton Khudobin to stay alive.
Surprisingly, the Lightning have matched, if not exceeded, the physicality of the Stars throughout the first five games. One of the narratives was that Dallas was going to be able to punish the more skilled Tampa Bay forwards throughout the match-ups, and while they’ve tried, the Lightning have given back just as good as they’ve taken. In particular Ryan McDonagh has been dishing out hits like they’re Krackel bars at Halloween.
On the flip side, Dallas’ speed has given the Lightning more than they can handle at times. Even though they are riddled with injuries the Stars are still the deepest team the Lightning have faced in the playoffs so far and their forecheck has caused problems from time to time.
They’ve also been very opportunistic during the five-on-five play throughout the series. Possession numbers seem to favor the Lightning as they hold pretty wide leads in things such as shot attempts (57.92% in favor), unblocked shot attempts (58.57% for) and shots on net (59.57%), but the Stars have been successful in close as they are practically even on High Danger Chances and have an overwhelming advantage in cashing in those HDC as they’ve scored 11 goals from such chances while the Lightning have scored just 5.
Overall at 5v5, despite the Lightning’s edge in possession, the Stars actually have the goals scored advantage at 12-10. Corey Perry and Joe Pavelski are leading the way with 3 goals each at even strength. Those goals aren’t beating Andrei Vasilevskiy cleanly, they’re coming off of deflections and rebounds. When Dallas scores at even strength, it’s because they are controlling the front of the net.
Special teams have been a different story. The Lightning have dominated that category both on the power play and the penalty kill. An interesting little stat is that Andrei Vasilevskiy’s save percentage at even strength is .874 and he’s given up 12 goals against an expected 9.19. Shorthanded, however, he’s posted a sparkling .967 SV% and allowed 1 goal against an expected 3.48.
While the Lightning have been ok at converting even-strength chances into goals, they have been fantastic on the power play. How far they’ve come from the opening two series where Coach Cooper was asked constantly “What is wrong with the power play?” In five games Tampa Bay has had the man-advantage 16 times. On 6 of those occasions they’ve scored. They’re averaging 3 shot attempts per power play and have 12 High Danger Chances in just over 25 minutes of time with the extra skater.
That’s pretty darn good. At times the Dallas defensive zone resembles practice as the Lightning’s top unit shoots, retrieves, shoots, retrieves, and shoots again, pinning the Stars back in the zone for long stretches of play. The top unit has 4 of the goals (Brayden Point 2, Ondrej Palat 1, Victor Hedman 1) and much of their time on the ice is spent firing the puck around the zone.
Throughout the playoffs, Dallas has taken a ton of penalties, they are the second most penalized team in terms of infractions called (behind the Lightning) and up until now have been able to survive. In Game Five they were able to limit their indiscretions, Tampa Bay only had one power play, and it kept the Stars in the game,
Since we’re talking about power plays and penalties, lets take a moment to talk about the officiating. It has....not been great. The Jamie Benn/Tyler Johnson slewfoot/trip/interference/holding/just a hockey play incident in Game Four has garnered a lot of attention, but overall there have been a bunch of missed penalties throughout the series. However, it’s been fairly even as far as how the calls have gone/not gone. There hasn’t really been any distinct bias favoring either team. For every high stick to Nikita Kucherov that isn’t called, there is a Pat Maroon trip that goes unwhistled. At this point the teams have to accept it. Like bad ice, it’s a flaw that affects both teams.
Speaking of flaws, the teams survived the back-to-back games relatively unscathed. Despite a lot of pundits expecting to see Anton Khudobin struggle due to his age, he had his best game in Game Five, and some of his best saves in the overtime period. Fatigue did not seem to be a factor.
With a day to rest, don’t expect anything new and shocking for Game Six or possibly Game Seven. Steven Stamkos may play, he may not. Dallas may need to deal with another injury or they may actually get somebody back. That won’t change the way either team plays or what they focus on for success. Dallas will continue to try and get the goals from in front of the net while the Lightning will rely on their power play and top line dominance. All that remains is to see which method prevails.