The 2020 Stanley Cup Final is underway, with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars knotted at 1-1 after two games.
The Stars took Game 1, 4-1 on Saturday, while Tampa Bay responded with three goals in the first period of Game 2. The Lightning were able to hold off a third period charge from the Stars to tie up the series.
Dallas appearing in the Stanley Cup Final is a bit of a surprise, considering how their season began. Head coach Jim Montgomery was relieved of his duties on December 10 after Montgomery was forced to address substance abuse issues. Assistant Rick Bowness became the oldest active head coach in the NHL when he was tasked with taking over for Montgomery. Bowness is quite familiar with his opposite number, as he was an assistant on Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper's staff from 2013 to 2018.
The Stars started off life in the bubble slow and nearly were sent home when the Colorado Avalanche pushed Dallas to a seventh game in the Western Conference Semifinals. Dallas really found their groove against Las Vegas in the Western Conference Final, dumping the top-seeded Golden Knights out of the playoffs in five games. Defense was the deciding factor in the series, with the Stars only allowing Las Vegas to score eight goals in five games.
Dallas has really shined when the pressure has been turned up. So far in this year's playoffs, the Stars have gone to overtime in five games, winning all five of those contests. In game 5 against Las Vegas, Dallas found themselves in a 2-0 hole before tying up the game with two goals in the third period, sending the game to overtime. Denis Gurianov secured the first trip to the Stanley Cup Final for the Stars in 20 years with a power play goal just three minutes into overtime.
After jumping out to a 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Islanders, Tampa Bay needed a couple games to close out the Islanders. The Lightning couldn't get the job done in double overtime in game 5, but Jon Cooper's team wouldn't be denied in Game 6, with Anthony Cirelli's goal securing Tampa Bay their third appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in franchise history.
Much like Dallas, Tampa Bay has been well versed in overtime during the playoffs, playing two overtime games in each series, posting a 5-1 record in those games. The Lightning must be getting paid by the hour during the playoffs, since in each series they have seen a game go to multiple overtimes. The most notable of those games came in the first game of the first round of the playoffs, as the Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets played the fourth-longest game in NHL history after the game wasn't decided until the middle of the fifth overtime.
Tampa Bay right wing Nikita KucherovKim Klement - USA TODAY Sports
Including the two games in this series, Nikita Kucherov is the leading scorer in the playoffs, with last year's league MVP registering 28 points in 21 games. Kucherov has shown he is one of the best playmakers in the league, notching 22 assists during the playoffs. Between the regular season and postseason, Kucherov now has 113 points. The next goal from Kucherov will be his 40th combined goal of the season.
Brayden Point sits just two points behind Kucherov for the team lead, but Point is leading the Lightning with 10 goals in the playoffs. Point opened up the scoring for Tampa Bay in Game 2, and was followed just minutes later by Ondrej Palat, who netted his ninth goal of the playoffs. Tying Palat with nine tallies so far in the playoffs is Victor Hedman, who fell just short of winning the Norris Trophy as the best defenseman in the NHL.
Dallas might not have the offensive firepower than Tampa Bay does, but that doesn't mean the you should sleep on the ability of the Stars to put the puck in the back of the net. After Tyler Seguin led Dallas with just 50 points during the regular season, defenseman Miro Heiskanen has recorded nearly half that amount so far in the playoffs, tallying 23 points. Veteran Joe Pavelski leads Dallas with 10 goals, and right behind Pavelski is Denis Gurianov, who has scored nine goals. Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov have both netted eight goals so far in the postseason.
Where this series will be decided is between the pipes. Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is 15-6 so far in the playoffs, sporting a tidy 1.88 goals against average. Even though Winnipeg's Connor Hellebuyck denied Vasilevskiy his second straight Vezina Trophy, many would tab the Tampa Bay net-minder as the best goaltender in the NHL today.
Dallas Stars goaltender Anton Khudobin Bruce Bennett - Getty Images
Dallas had questions at goalie early in the playoffs when Ben Bishop really struggled in three appearances, forcing Bowness to pull the former Tampa Bay goalie and turn to backup Anton Khudobin. So far Khudobin has not disappointed, saving 35 shots in Game 1 to give Dallas a 1-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final. During the playoffs this year, Khudobin has posted a 13-7 record with a 2.57 goals against average.
This is the first Stanley Cup Final played between teams from the "sun belt", so naturally it is being played in Canada. Dallas has been a great story in the playoffs, especially with the adversity they faced after moving on from Montgomery. The Stars have come together against the best teams in the Western Conference, but Tampa Bay is on a mission after being embarrassed in last year's playoffs, when the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets swept the Lightning in the first round.
Dallas gives Tampa Bay all they can handle but the Stars come up just short. Vasilevskiy continues his outstanding run of play, earning playoff MVP honors as Tampa Bay wins in six games, earning their second Stanley Cup in franchise history.
After diving into the most important player on each of the eight Eastern Conference teams left in the NHL Playoffs, we now turn our attention to the eight teams left in the Western Conference.
So far the action has been hot in Edmonton for the qualifying round, round robin play, and the early parts of the first round, and doesn't look to cool off anytime soon.
Las Vegas Golden Knights
Robin Lehner - G
Las Vegas unknowingly hit a jackpot when they acquired Robin Lehner. Not only did the Golden Knights acquire a goaltender with some playoff experience, but little did they know that they would be bringing in a player who had spent most of the season on the team that they would go up against in the first round of the playoffs. Lehner went 16-10-5 in 31 starts for Chicago this year, and the Swedish goalie has been even better for Las Vegas, winning all of his seven starts in the regular season and playoffs.
The Golden Knights entered the season with three-time Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury at goalie, but they knew they would have to upgrade the position if they wanted to make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals, like in their inaugural season in the NHL in 2018. Lehner doesn't have the titles that Fleury does, but the Golden Knights feel like Lehner is the best option to keep the opposition of the board. So far that decision has paid off with interest for Las Vegas.
Nathan MacKinnon - C
The first overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft is essentially the offense of the Colorado Avalanche. Nathan MacKinnon finished the regular season with 35 goals and 93 points. By comparison, no other Colorado player totaled more than 50 points this season. MacKinnon's performance was so impressive, it earned him a spot as finalist in the race for the NHL MVP award. MacKinnon is the only one of the three finalists still left in the playoffs.
If the Avalanche didn't have MacKinnon on their roster, they certainly wouldn't be sitting in the position that they are currently in. MacKinnon opened the scoring in game 2 on Friday afternoon with his second goal of the playoffs. The Avalanche would go on to beat Arizona, jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series. Last year MacKinnon totaled six goals and seven assists in 12 playoff games, and he looks primed to lead Colorado to an even deeper run in the playoffs this season.
St. Louis Blues
Vladimir Tarasenko - RW
St. Louis Blues RW Vladimir TarasenkoJeff Curry - USA TODAY Sports
One of the key members of the St. Louis Blues team that won the Stanley Cup was winger Vladimir Tarasenko. The Russian scored 11 goals in 26 playoff games last season, helping the Blues to their first title since 1970. The 16th pick in the 2010 draft has been incredibly balanced throughout his NHL career, scoring 214 goals and dishing out 214 assists in 507 games.
Tarasenko's regular season was cut short early on, with a shoulder injury sidelining the winger after just 10 games. Tarasenko might have returned for the playoffs had the NHL not had to pause the season, but there was no guarantee where Tarasenko's health would be. With a couple extra months to recover, Tarasenko was ready to hit the ice at full speed.
So far Tarasenko has been a bit rusty, failing to record a point in three playoff games. During the regular season, only three St. Louis players scored at least 20 goals, which makes Tarasenko's return to the lineup even more important, especially since they have to take on the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the playoffs. If Tarasenko can find his rhythm in the offense, the Blues could make another deep playoff run.
Bo Horvat - C
Vancouver Canucks C Bo HorvatDan Toulgoet - Vancouver Courier
Vancouver is an up-and-coming team, and they might have just found their leader in the playoffs. Canucks like Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes may get more attention, but there might not be a hotter hockey player out there right now than Bo Horvat. The center scored two goals and was credited with two assists in Vancouver's four qualifying round games against Minnesota. Horvat has been even better in the first two games against St. Louis, recording four goals, including the winner in overtime in game 2.
Horvat has always had a knack for finding the back of the net, scoring at least 20 goals in each of the last four seasons, but the Ontario native has really caught fire inside the bubble in Edmonton. Now with Vancouver just a couple wins away from the second round, it'll be interested to see if Horvat can keep his hot stretch of play going. If Horvat doesn't cool off, Vancouver will be a tougher out in the playoffs than some were expecting the Canucks to be.
Mark Giordano - D
Stat-wise, Giordano fell off a little bit during the regular season, but it doesn't mean the captain of the Flames became any less important to the team. After winning the Norris Trophy last year as the league's best defenseman, Giordano only recorded five goals and 31 points this year in 60 games, marking the first time since the 2012-13 season in which he failed to reach double digits in goal tallies.
Much like Eastern Conference blue line counterparts, Seth Jones and Dougie Hamilton, Giordano is the heart of the Flames. While youngsters Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Guadreau receive most of Calgary's headlines, Giordano is the calming force on defense that has propelled the Flames to a 2-1 series lead on Dallas in the first round.
Darcy Kuemper - G
Looking at the Arizona roster, it's probably a bit of a surprise that Kuemper is the Coyote identified as the most important player, especially with guys like Phil Kessel, Taylor Hall, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Dig a little deeper and it's easy to see why. Kessel is in the latter half of his career, and not producing quite like he did in Pittsburgh. Hall was traded from New Jersey earlier this year, so he is still trying to adjust to his new teammates and style of play.
With Arizona sneaking into the playoffs, they'll likely have to play some of the best teams in the conference if they want to make a deep run. Kuemper came up huge against Nashville in the qualifying round, recording at least 40 saves in each of Arizona's three wins in the series. The first round matchup against Colorado has proven a little tougher, with the Avalanche winning both games, but Kuemper is still performing at a high level. If the Coyotes are going to comeback against a very talented Colorado team, it will be because Kuemper stood on his head between the pipes.
Jonathan Toews - C
Chicago Blackhawks C Jonathan ToewsJerome Miron - USA TODAY Sports
You name it on the ice, and Jonathan Toews has probably done it. The captain of the Blackhawks is a three-time Stanley Cup champion, was playoff MVP in 2010, and has made the All-Star Game on five separate occasions. Even though this is season 13 for Toews in the NHL, he has shown so far in the playoffs he is still one of the best in the league.
Coming into the qualifying round, it looked like Chicago's backs were against the wall, since the Blackhawks were matched up with Edmonton. With the NHL's Western Conference bubble being in Edmonton, the Oilers had a bit of a home-ice advantage. Add in the Oilers having young stars like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and it was hard to see Chicago advancing.
Toews showed that even though he has a few years on the Edmonton stars, that he is still dangerous, scoring two goals and recording three assists in the four-game series victory for the Blackhawks. Patrick Kane may light up the scoresheet more than Toews, but there is no doubt the captain is what makes Chicago tick. As long as Toews is on the ice, the Blackhawks are never truly out of it.