We’ve finally made it to what will be remembered as the craziest season of NHL hockey in a long time. The Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars will go head-to-head for the Stanley Cup starting Saturday night. Can Dallas continue its incredible run against the odds? Or will Tampa Bay’s depth simply be too much for the Stars?
These two teams have taken remarkably different paths to arrive at the same place. It’s no stretch to say the Dallas Stars were given up for dead several times across this playoffs. Coming out of the round-robin, the Stars offense was incredibly inconsistent. In fact the Stars scored only one goal in six periods of hockey before the start of the Calgary series.
When the familiar 16-team tournament began for the Stanley Cup, Dallas began to show some sparks offensively. Joe Pavelski dropped a big hat trick in Game Four. Denis Gurianov surprised everyone with four goals and an assist in Game Six to eliminate the Flames.
Here and there, other big name players would being to chip in after very slow starts. Jamie Benn scored in three straight games against the Colorado Avalanche before doing the same thing again against the Vegas Golden Knights. Alex Radulov remains his streaky self but leads the Stars with four game-winning goals in the playoffs. And there are still some players who have yet to manifest much playoff production, including Roope Hintz (who to be fair is battling injuries), Tyler Seguin and Corey Perry.
Heck, even Joel Kiviranta stepped up with an incredible hat trick in Game Seven of the Colorado series to help the Stars advance. And that’s been the formula for the Stars: different players stepping up and different times.
Scoring is certainly part of the Stars story, but not everything. Two players have been even more important to the success of the team than anyone we’ve talked about yet: Miro Heiskanen and Anton Khudobin.
Heiskanen put the hockey world on notice in the very first game against the VGK, assisting on all three Dallas goals in a 5-3 loss. The Calgary series saw him post a two-goal game in Game Two and a goal and three assists in Game Seven. Suddenly the hockey world was talking.
Entering the Final the Espoo, Finland native leads the team with 17 assists and 22 points, and has really become the attack driver for Dallas from the blueline. Entering the season if you’d asked me which defender would be the most important to the Stars offense, I’d have pointed to John Klingberg. Take nothing away from Klingberg and his 3-13-16, but Heiskanen has been the brightest Star so far.
And there’s no way to wrap any conversation about Dallas without celebrating the run 34-year-old Anton Khudobin has put together. After bouncing around for a decade struggling to find a starting role, opportunity knocked when Ben Bishop was declared unfit to play early in the return. From there, he’s gone 12-6 with a decent .920 save percentage and 2.62 GAA. The numbers don’t overwhelm you. That GAA is good for 21st, the save percentage a little better at 15th. But where Khudobin has shown is in the intangibles. Making big saves at the right time. Walling it off when his team needs him to not allow another goal. If you take away no other stat of major importance about Khudobin, Dallas is 5-0 in overtime this playoffs.
If Dallas is going to win the Stanley Cup, they’ll have to find a way to buckle it down defensively.
Tampa Bay Lightning
For the Tampa Bay Lightning, the combination of offensive might and shut-down defense/goaltending has been what wins. Right now the Bolts are undefeated when leading after either the first (7-0) or second (7-0) periods, and 9-1 when scoring first. The problems happen when the defense falls asleep early. Tampa has yet to rally from a first period deficit in four tries, and has only won twice in six games when trailing after the second period.
In the absence of Steven Stamkos thus far Victor Hedman has led the charge for the Lightning. Hedman has put together a Conn Smythe caliber campaign with 9-6-15 so far. The nine goals ties for the team lead with Brayden Point and is a new Tampa team record for a defenseman. It’s also tied for third most by a defenseman in NHL history for a single playoff with Brad Park and Bobby Orr. Lofty company to be sure. But you’d expect nothing less from a guy sporting his fourth consecutive Norris Trophy nomination.
His possession metrics are also what you’d expect from him. His team on-ice save percentage is 94.9%, Corsi-for 57.1% and a Fenwick-for of 56.7% too. Hedman is the backbone of this Lightning team and will need to have a great series at both ends of the ice.
Up front the aforementioned Point has been tremendous despite battling bumps and bruises that kept him out of Games Two and Four of the Islanders series. This is the time of year the big players deliver the big performances, and Tampa has to hope Point can get through whatever his issues are. Ondrej Palat has shown himself a playoff performer with eight goals so far. Nikita Kucherov keeps setting them up with 20 assists and 26 points, leading all playoff scorers in both categories.
What could prove to be the one thing that can trip Tampa up is secondary scoring. Beyond the big names, Yanni Gourde has five playoff goals and three other players have four each. If Point is hampered in any significant way by his injuries, other players will need to step it up. Speaking plainly, they are needed to step it up regardless so that the Stars have to pay attention to more than just one line defensively.
The real X factor in this Stanley Cup series is the return of Steven Stamkos. While Lightning GM Julien BrisBois said he will not play Game One, the fact that he’s not been ruled out for the series definitely raises some eyebrows as well as questions. If Stamkos gets into the lineup, how effective would he be? Dropping into the regular season after an extended injury period is hard. The playoffs is harder. How about the Stanley Cup Final? That’s a pretty tall order, even for Stamkos. But he’s an impact player when he’s on his game, and could really help distribute the scoring more evenly across the lineup. If the scales need tipping at some point, look for him to return even if he’s not 100 percent.
Finally, I do have to mention Andrei Vasilevskiy because he’s playing so well. His 14-5 record, .931 save percentage and 1.82 GAA have helped the Lightning get past even the toughest tests. The New York Islanders figured to push the Bolts most and did beat them twice, but Vasilevskiy held them to one goal in three of the five games. He also has a tremendous Goals Saved Above Average of 8.45 – for comparison Khudobin has a 1.69 in the playoffs.
On paper, Tampa Bay seems to have the edge in almost all categories except on the power play. For me, the real difference will come down to secondary scoring. Dallas has been streaky with its offense. If the Stars found some consistency and scoring depth they could be a surprise champion at the end of it all. But I expect the Lightning to triumph given their edge in net and slightly deeper roster.
Official Prediction: Tampa in six.
Conn Menn: Who is the NHL Playoff MVP?
We here at VHN enjoy discussing the types of topics that engender debate over beverages with friends. With Game Six tonight and the Tampa Bay Lightning able to claim Lord Stanley’s Cup tonight, it seems like a good time to look at who could end up winning the Conn Smythe trophy as NHL playoff MVP.
Keep in mind our Dallas selections could change a bit over the next few days if the Stars somehow manage to win it in seven. One argument I cannot back is (for example) Tyler Seguin scores two overtime winners for the Stars and they hoist the Cup. Seguin is not my NHL playoff MVP and there’s no scenario that makes him so. Please don’t come at me with something like that. It takes four rounds to win the Stanley Cup.
If Tampa Wins:
Victor Hedman – D
Hedman has 10 goals and 21 points in the playoffs so far to go with a nice plus-13 rating. He’s been incredibly good in his own end, and is providing offense at a record-setting pace from the blue line. What really impresses me is his Goals/60 numbers. At even strength, Hedman is an impressive .900 – but on the power play that number balloons to an incredible 2.970. Averaging almost three goals per 60 minutes of power play time is amazing, but so is working at almost a goal per 60 minutes of even strength. Only Brayden Point’s PP numbers are close at 2.799.
Brayden Point – F
Nikita Kucherov – F
If you’re going with a forward for my money it has to be one of these two guys. Kucherov has led the team in assists (26) and points (33) so far, and in my opinion has been Tampa’s best offensive player. The reason I put Point with him on here is because his 13 goals tops the Bolts and his 32 points sits just one behind Kucherov. At times, it’s almost impossible to separate the two because they thrive off each other to a great extent. If I had to lean one way or the other, I think Kucherov’s overall game gives him the edge.
Andrei Vasilevskiy – G
The goalie always warrants a look, but I don’t think Vasi wins this year through no fault of his own. Unless he manages to pitch a shutout in the clincher, he just won’t get the attention he deserves. Very quietly almost, he’s won 17 of his 24 games so far with a 1.97 GAA and .925 save percentage. What’s even more impressive is his Goals Saved Above Average (which has actually come down slightly this round) of 6.05. By way of comparison, Anton Khudobin’s GSAA is sitting at 0.40 entering Game Six. Again, an underrated playoff performance that really deserves more attention.
If Dallas Wins:
Anton Khudobin – G
Seriously, Dallas is not here if Khudobin doesn’t go on the run he’s currently on. While the numbers don’t seem that impressive at 14-9 with a .917 save percentage and 2.72 GAA, he’s come up with the big save at the right time. That right there is a major reason why Dallas still breathes. Keep in mind, this is the Most Valuable Player, not the Best Statistical Player. It’s hard to measure exactly what Khudobin has done in numbers except win. Dallas has won with him, and wouldn’t be here without him.
Joe Pavelski – F
Pavelski scored a historic goal when he tied Game Five for Dallas. The marker was his 61st career playoff tally, moving him into sole possession of first place among American-born playoff goal scorers. He broke a tie with Joe Mullen, a three-time Stanley Cup winner with Calgary (89) and Pittsburgh (91, 92). Scoring 13 goals and 19 points in the playoffs has been critical for Dallas, especially with the aforementioned Seguin’s disappearance from the scoresheet. Of all the Stars forwards, he’s been the closest to consistent in production for a team that at times has struggled to score goals.
Miro Heiskanen – D
Entering the Final if Dallas won you would have had a hard time persuading me to give the Conn Smythe to someone else. Heiskanen has had a real coming out party in the playoffs this season, leading all defensemen in scoring with 26 points. At one point it seemed like he was everywhere for the Stars in both ends of the rink. But in the Final, he’s struggled a little not only to find the score sheet but in his own end as well. Whatever the case, unless Heiskanen was to post big games back-to-back and Dallas wins, he’s dropped to third on my list.
What do you think? Who are your NHL playoff MVP winners for Dallas and Tampa? Let us know in the comments!
Steven Stamkos Return Imminent, Will It Be Game Two?
Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos took morning skate prior to Game Two of the Stanley Cup Final today. With his team down a game in the best-of-seven series there couldn’t be a better time for him to come back. Head coach Jon Cooper refused to rule him out entirely for Game Two this evening, although Stamkos did spend extra time on the ice with other scratches at morning skate.
Stamkos hasn’t played since February 25 against the Toronto Maple Leafs when he went down with a core muscle injury after posting an assist in 12:30 of ice time. The helper extended his point streak at the time to 15 straight games (12-10-22). Stamkos had surgery in early March and would have been ready for the return to play had he not injured his leg in Phase 2 skates prior to the bubble. Stamkos has suffered two setbacks from that leg injury since.
Thanks to the deep run by the Lightning, the Bolts will get their on and off-ice leader back soon at a time when they desperately need a jolt. How big will the Stamkos Bump be?
First of all it will be a decidedly different look for the Lightning if they elect to go back to 12 forwards. Cooper has been running seven D and 11 forwards for most of the playoffs. Seven defenseman gives you the chance to dress an extra player for special teams or depth on the back end, but can put you behind the eight ball since you don’t have four full lines. Case in point: the 10-minute misconduct taken by Pat Maroon at the end of the second period meant the Lightning were down to 10 forwards for the first half of the third period. While that penalty didn’t lose the game for the Bolts, it certainly meant dropping to three lines and an extra forward for that stretch. For a team that has some top fowards that appear to be tiring, that’s a big deal.
Stamkos will be theoretically game fresh, but also off the pace to start. Now, Stamkos is a superstar player. The former first-overall draft pick will certainly have an easier time catching up than many other players would. But after the initial adrenaline wears off, how effective will he be?
In order for the Stamkos Bump to result in a win for Tampa Bay, a few things have to happen. First, Stamkos has to generate threatening opportunities. Taking nothing away from the Dallas Stars defensively because they’ve been awesome, but focusing on just one major line makes the job easier. With Stamkos back in the lineup, it now gives Tampa two legitimate scoring lines if they can generate chances. Stamkos and his linemates must find a way threaten as often as possible against a stingy Dallas team defense.
The other major place for Stamkos to make an impact is the power play. Going just 1-for-19 in this latest stretch, the Lightning power play has been shockingly quiet considering the talent level. A player like Stamkos who has a pure shot and great vision can really make a major impact on the momentum of a game. If Stamkos can find space on his off-wing to set up the one-timer it would make a huge difference. When Stars goaltender Anton Khudobin has been square to the shooter he stops almost everything. Getting him to move laterally and not giving him time to get set are two major keys to scoring goals against him. So far no one has really been successful in doing so.
Cooper said he knows that Stamkos wants to come back and doesn’t want to rush him until his conditioning suggests he will succeed. Stamkos is competitive enough that he wants to be out there making a difference as soon as possible. Trailing 1-0 in the series is the most tempting time to stick him back out there, but it appears the Lightning will wait one more game.
But hey, you never know. Maybe that’s why on Sunday Cooper said “that’s why you have to tune in and find out.”
We will all tune in to find out.