Previewing the 2020 Stanley Cup Final
Welcome to the biggest stage in sports, like we've never seen it before.
The National Hockey League will be the first of the four major sports leagues to award a championship during the COVID-19 pandemic. More waiting and effort have gone into this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs than any before it, and hopefully more than any after it.
We started in two bubbles: the top twelve Eastern Conference teams in Toronto, the top twelve Western Conference teams in Edmonton. The top four bypassed to the round of sixteen with seeding determined by a round-robin that saw both teams with the best regular season record in their conference fall to the number four seed. The other eight in each group played each other in best of five series, the first the NHL has seen of the format in decades. Each of the top two seeds in those qualifiers were eliminated by number twelve seeds that, based on where they were in the standings on March 11, had virtually no shot of qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a normal year.
On August 11, the Stanley Cup Playoffs officially began. Sixteen teams sixteen wins away from achieving every hockey player's ultimate dream. The defending champs went out in Round 1. The President's Trophy winners went out in Round 2. Some stars have been injured, some have slumped, and others have risen to the occasion. Depth players and backup goalies have become household names, a phrase more fitting than ever this year since a household is just about the only place to watch this year's tournament. It has been thrilling. It has been a little weird. But it definitely has been fun, and for fans of 29 teams, that's all that matters.
As for the other two, their season has one final chapter. What they will write is up to them. Two franchises who set up shop within a year of each other in the early 90s. They both have one Cup from the pre-cap era, and one other trip to the Finals that came up just short. They hail from two of the warmest areas in the United States, places whose names seemingly relate to anything but hockey. But here they are, four wins separating them from the greatest trophy in sports. In a year full of unanswerable questions, the 2019-20 NHL season only has one left to answer.
Who will win the Stanley Cup?
The Matchup: #2 Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6) vs. #3 Dallas Stars (37-24-8)
Season Series: If the regular season is any indication, this series should be a battle. In their first meeting, a December showdown in Tampa, the Lightning jumped out to a 3-1 lead thanks to two early power-play goals. But the Stars rallied, with Jason Dickinson tying it up in the last five minutes of the 3rd, setting up an OT winner from Tyler Seguin. Anton Khudobin started and stopped 45 shots.
The rubber match took place in Dallas, where it was the Lightning scoring a late stunning goal, as Steven Stamkos tied it 2-2 with less than 90 seconds remaining in the 3rd. But Jamie Benn made sure that goal would be in vain, stealing the puck from Brayden Point and beating Vasilevskiy on a breakaway.
The Last Time(s) Here: Tampa Bay's current core reached the 2015 Finals, back when they were considered young guns. The grizzled Blackhawks took some time to get going, as the Bolts jumped out to a 2-1 series lead, but the Hawks eventually found their stride and took the series in six. Dallas made back to back finals appearances in 1999 and 2000, losing the latter on a Game 6 OT winner by Jason Arnott.
They won the former on one of the most controversial goals in NHL history, as Brett Hull scored in double OT of Game 6 against Buffalo to win the Cup. But the goal probably shouldn't have counted, as Hull's skate was in the crease when he put the puck past Dominik Hasek, which used to be against the rules. Tampa Bay won a controversial Cup of their own. Down 3-2 in the Finals to the Calgary Flames, Martin Gelinas appeared to put the puck over the goal-line in the final seven minutes of a deadlocked Game 6. The play was ruled no goal on the ice, and somehow the referees never thought to review the goal. Former Flame Martin St. Louis scored the double OT winner, and the Lightning took Game 7 2-1 two nights later.
Past Meetings: We were actually treated to a rematch in last year's final, the first time the two finalists had previously met in the playoffs since the Kings and Rangers in 2014. No such luck this year; it's the first time the Stars and Lightning have faced each other in the playoffs.
The Journey Here: This has been a long time coming for the Lightning. After losing in the Conference Finals in 2016 and 2018, missing the playoffs by tiebreakers in an injury-plagued 2017 season, and suffering arguably the most stunning first-round exit in NHL history as the 2019 President's Trophy winners. In 2020, they ended the round-robin the same way they entered it - the number two seed in the East. Facing the same Blue Jackets team that utterly destroyed them last year, Tampa won Game 1 in five overtimes and the series in five games. It took two overtime wins, including a double OT win to clinch the series in Game 5, to knock out the same Bruins team they won their last playoff series against before this year's run. The pesky Islanders gave them an incredible fight in the Eastern Conference Final, but they proved they were still superior to New York (just like when they beat them in 2016), eliminating the Isles in six.
Few people expected the Stars, who edged out the Oilers by .009 points percentage for the last round-robin spot to avoid the qualifier round, to make much noise in the playoffs. An unimpressive 1-2-0 performance in said round-robin (that one win came in a shootout) and an early 2-1 series deficit to the Flames in round one confirmed those beliefs. But then Joe Pavelski tied Game 4 in the final minute, and the Stars have never been the same. They put up seven goals in Game 6 to eliminate the Flames, then took down the high-flying Avalanche with a game seven OT winner from hat-trick hero Joel Kiviranta. Facing off against the other Western Cup favorites, Vegas, the Stars shut down the potent Knights in a convincing five-game series victory.
Conn Smythe Watch:
TB: All due respect to Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, and Andrei Vasilevskiy, but this is Victor Hedman's award to lose if the Lightning win. Hedman's nine goals put him in a nine-way tie for the second most goals in the playoffs, but he's the only defenseman in that group (only Vancouver's Bo Horvat has more with 10). Hedman has been an absolutely machine for the Lightning all playoffs, easily leading the team in time-on-ice per game, driving like a beast (59.07% Corsi, 60.66% xGF) while playing significant minutes with just about every other Tampa defenseman. Kucherov and Point are first and tied for second in scoring in these playoffs, and Vasilevskiy has saved more goals above average than any goalie not named Demko, but Hedman is the heavy favorite entering this series.
DAL: Miro Heiskanen is the obvious candidate here. Entering the Conference Finals, Heiskanen's 21 points led the field among the final four teams. He's driven play well at a 50.61% Corsi and 55.16% xGF. You'd think it was illegal for the Stars to score when he or John Klingberg aren't on the ice; something like 90% of the Stars goals have been scored with at least one of those guys on the ice. He set up Gurianov's series winner against Vegas and has looked like a poised veteran with the puck all playoffs. Anton Khudobin's incredible play in relief of Ben Bishop probably makes him the backup choice, and Jamie Benn enters the Finals with momentum after scoring five points in the Vegas series and 14 in 12 games since the start of Round 2.
The Lightning Win Because: Simply put, it's their time. Like I mentioned earlier, Tampa has been all around the Cup the last few years. They have some of the top high end talent in the league even with captain Steven Stamkos seeming unlikely to return. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point have proven they're more than capable of carrying a championship team. A lot of the secondary pieces from their 2015 run, namely Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, are still back. Previous GM and new GM Steve Yzerman and Julien Brisebois, respectively, have done a great job finding support players like Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, and Barclay Goodrow. Yes, the price to acquire the last two was hefty, but I wrote back then it would be worth it if they won a ring. They're four wins away.
Tampa's backend might be their biggest strength. The left-side is absolutely loaded, featuring Norris finalist Victor Hedman, former Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, and young star Mikhail Sergachev. All three could be first-pair defensemen on more than half of the teams in the league. The right-side features a resurgent Kevin Shattenkirk, underrated defensive defenseman Erik Cernak, and gritty veterans Zach Bogosian and Luke Schenn have been surprisingly decent. Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the best goalies in the NHL, and after struggling in last year's playoffs and giving up three goals in the first two periods of Game 7 of the 2018 ECF against the Capitals. Whether it's offense or defense, 5-on-5 or special teams, the Lightning are a tough team to beat.
The Stars Win Because: They've proved they can win in multiple ways, doing whatever it takes to get past an opponent. Dallas was the second best defensive team in the regular season, but the seventh best offensive team in the bubble. Even dealing with a significant injury of their own, as former Bolt Ben Bishop has been unfit to play for almost the entire playoffs, the Stars have thrived over the last 2.5 rounds. Dallas has gradually gotten better over the last few years, going from 79 points in 2016-17 to 92 in 2017-18 to double OT of Game 7 in Round 2 against the eventual champs in 2018-19 to one of the last two teams standing this year. The Stars survived a surprising midseason coaching change due to off-ice circumstances, as well as a 1-7-1 start to the season, which they turned around against...oh, not again.
Dallas' turnaround started when they added Alexander Radulov, forming one of the deadliest top lines on paper with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Seguin and Benn have disappointed a bit in their regular season performance the last few years, but Benn has been a beast in the playoffs, and Radulov has been clutch as well, scoring two goals in Game 7 against the Avs and an OT winner against Vegas. Adding Joe Pavelski into the fray last summer finally gave the Stars a legitimate secondary scorer, and it was his last-minute game-tying goal in Game 4 against the Flames (his third of the game) to spark the Stars turnaround. Add in a mix of solid young players like Dennis Gurianov, Jason Dickinson, and Roope Hintz (not to mention Joel 'effing Kiviranta), and the Stars forward group is actually quite formidable.
On the backend, Dallas' top three is as good as any and can easily matchup with Tampa's. Heiskanen's dominance has already been detailed, but John Klingberg has been just as good. The Stars' power-play quarterback has 16 points in the playoffs. Though he and Esa Lindell, a solid defensive defenseman, haven't been great analytically, they've shown great chemistry in the past and I'd expect a bounce-back in the Finals. However, their defensive depth (usually Andrej Sekera, Jamie Oleksiak, and Taylor Fedun or Joel Hanley) pales in comparison to Tampa's; it's easily the biggest mismatch of the series. Anton Khudobin has quietly been one of the best backups in the league three years running (.922 save percentage), and he's proven he can hack it on the biggest stage. The only thing I'd be concerned about is Khudobin is easily in the midst of the biggest workload of his career, so maybe there's a chance he wears down in this series, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Flyers Fans Should Root For: This category is nowhere as easy to pick as it was last year. This is the first Finals without a major Flyers rival (Penguins, Rangers, Bruins, or Devils) or the same Blackhawks team that beat them in the 2010 Finals since 2007 (Ducks vs. Senators). Tampa does have the former Flyers edge by rostering Braydon Coburn, who's only played three playoff games, and Luke Schenn, who's been used in a sheltered 5-on-5 and PK role. Sometimes you have to look to the other teams in the City of Brotherly Love. Most Flyers fans are Eagles fans, myself among them. As much as I like the Stars as a team, there's no way I can cheer for a team from Dallas. The Lightning take this in the end.
The Pick: Even with all of the injuries, even with how good the Stars have been playing, I still feel that is Tampa Bay's year. Granted, I felt that heading into last year's tournament, but this year I thought they were either going out in Round 1 or winning it all, especially when they drew a rematch with Columbus in the East Quarterfinals. But Tampa Bay has looked absolutely unstoppable so far in these playoffs, a little less vulnerable than Colorado (who dominated a very inferior Arizona team in Round 1) and way less than Vegas (who nearly got goalied by Thatcher Demko in Round 2). The Bolts were my picks to win it all when the playoffs began, and they haven't given me any reason to change my mind. Lightning in 6.
Oddly Specific Prediction (via Down Goes Brown): The Lightning have the chance to become the first team has ever clinched four playoff series with an overtime win in the same playoffs (the 1999 Stars came the closest, winning every round except the Western Conference Final in OT). The last team to win every playoff round in OT were the 1954 Detroit Red Wings, who only had to win two series to take home the Cup. As someone who loves playoff OT, I'm rooting for it. Which means the series winning goal is being scored in the final two minutes of regulation.