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.