The matchup is set.
After the Dallas Stars experienced the elation of Denis Gurianov’s series-clinching goal in Monday’s 3-2 overtime winner in Game Five of the Western Conference Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning experienced a similar rush with a 2-1 overtime win over the New York Islanders in the series-clinching win Thursday night.
Now, the two teams know their opponent. Dallas and Tampa Bay will meet for the first time in a playoff series in the 2020 Stanley Cup Finals at the National Hockey League bubble at the Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta. Puck drop on game one is set for 6:30 Saturday night on NBC.
How they got here
In short, 2019-20 has been one of the most consequential seasons in Stars franchise history. Stars pre-and-postgame radio host Bruce LeVine summed it up well:
Quick Recap of the Stars season so far:
1) Begin the year 1-7-1
2) Go on a 14-1-1 run
3) Fire Jim Montgomery and replace him with Rick Bowness
4) Winter Classic
5) Dominant Jan-Feb
5) Go 0-4-2 in March
6) Five month break due to Coronavirus
7) Advance to the Stanley Cup Final
— Bruce LeVine (@BruceLeVinePuck) September 15, 2020
As for Tampa Bay, despite the pause, this season has gone much more as planned. The Lightning won 43 games on the way to 92 regular season points and a runner-up finish in the race for the President’s Trophy behind defending Eastern Conference champion Boston. In the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in Toronto, Tampa Bay overcame a marathon, five-overtime thriller in game one that lasted nearly six hours in its first round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. It lost game two, but ultimately didn’t have any issues on the way to a series win in five games.
Tampa then took it to a slightly-favored Bruins team without its starting goalie in just five games thanks to more late game heroics. In another uneventful series, the Lightning outlasted the upstart New York Islanders in the Conference Finals despite a late push back.
What’s at stake
Dallas arrives at its first Stanley Cup Final since 2000, when it lost to New Jersey after hoisting the cup a year prior against Buffalo. Tampa Bay last appeared in a Cup Final in 2015- when it lost to the Chicago Blackhawks dynasty with current injured Stars goalie Ben Bishop in net. The Lightning made one Final appearance prior- when they topped Calgary in 2004 for the title.
Dallas is essentially playing with house money after upsetting No. 1 Vegas and No. 2 Colorado and not being favored in either matchup. Tampa Bay has much more pressure thanks to sky-high expectations and a warm seat on head coach Jon Cooper.
Tampa Bay is also still suffering the after effects of a historic upset in the first round of the 2019 playoffs. Major underdog Columbus blitzed the Lightning, who got no punch at all from its main scorers, and shocked the President’s Trophy winners in a four-game sweep. A Stanley Cup would finally put away the burdens and internet memes (maybe) left over from the historic choke.
Scouting the Lightning
Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov have developed into two of the league’s most fearsome scorers. They are tied for second in Stanley Cup Playoff scoring, only behind Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon.
Mikhail Sergachev and Victor Hedman are an incredible defenseman duo that pack a two-way punch rivaled by few in the National Hockey League. They’ve both been impressive in front of defending Vezina winner Andrei Vasilesky this postseason- and a big part of why the Lightning ranked top-two in the Eastern Conference in goals against average this postseason.
The emergence of players like Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat- who both had bottom-six roles in the Lightning’s run to the 2015 Cup Finals- along with Yanni Gourde has shored up a potent and incredibly deep offense and a big reason why Tampa checks in at fourth in postseason scoring with 3.17 goals per game.
Dallas will need to excel on special teams to contain Tampa Bay’s explosiveness and limit any unforced scoring opportunities. The Lightning are excellent at drawing penalties- and one of Dallas’ weaknesses is giving them up. Vegas drew 22 penalties to Dallas’ 13 in the conference final.
Regular season results
As with all 15 other Eastern Conference teams, Dallas only plays a home-and-home with Tampa Bay annually. Although some of its match-ups with the East were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Stars and Lightning met twice within a 40-day span and produced two thrilling results.
In the first meeting December 19, Dallas was still riding a roller coaster after its terrible start and franchise-record winning streak. The Stars had a slightly better record at the time, and took an early lead at Amalie Arena- a tough place to win- thanks to an Alexander Radulov goal.
Tampa then did what it does best- pour it on with consecutive goals. Tallies from Mikhail Sergachev, Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat put the Lightning up 3-1, but a spirited Stars comeback capped by a Tyler Seguin overtime goal paired with a strong performance in net from then-backup Anton Khoudobin sealed a 4-3 win for Dallas.
On January 27, Dallas and Tampa Bay matched up again with similar records in the heat of a playoff push. Longtime goal scorer and captain Steven Stamkos grabbed a lead for the Lightning, but Dallas rallied thanks to a goal from Radek Faksa.
Jamie Benn made one of the most incredible plays in his career to seal a Stars win in OT.
In several facets, despite a very different and sometimes inferior resume, Dallas matches up well with the intimidating Eastern Conference Champions. They might not feel like a traditional Stanley Cup Finalist, but the Stars have absolutely earned the right to play for the title. Now all that’s left to do is take the ice.
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