Lord Stanley's Cup Still Without a Favorite
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.