From 24 teams on August 1st all the way down to two: it’s officially the eve of the Stanley Cup Final, folks. The Lightning beat the Islanders in last night’s Game 6 and will play the Dallas Stars. The Stars have been waiting around since defeating the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 on Monday. Regardless of which team wins this year, a sizeable Stanley Cup drought will be broken. The Lightning haven’t won since 2004, while the Stars are looking for their first Stanley Cup since 1999. But anyway, here what you need to know leading into this series.
As always, this will be a best of seven series. It kicks off tomorrow night (Saturday, September 19th) at 7:30 pm on NBC. The rest of the schedule is as follows:
- Game 2: Monday, September 21st, 8:00 pm (NBCSN)
- Game 3: Wednesday, September 23rd, 8:00 pm (NBCSN)
- Game 4: Friday, September 25th, 8:00 pm (NBC)
- Game 5: Saturday, September 26th, 8:00 pm (NBC)*
- Game 6: Monday, September 28th, 8:00 pm (NBC)*
- Game 7: Wednesday, September 30th, 8:00 pm (NBC)*
As you can see, there’s a set of back-to-back games here for some reason. I have no idea why they felt this was necessary, but they did. It’s totally understandable that they want to get this done as soon as possible. But, I can’t imagine too many players are happy at the thought of a back-to-back in the Stanley Cup Final. Not having it would’ve put them in the bubble for just one extra day. So I’m not quite sure what the reasoning was, but I don’t make the decisions obviously, so it’s in there. The rest of the schedule is as expected, with games every other day as they have been all playoffs.
Moving on from the schedule, let’s dig into how these two teams match-up on paper.
On paper, the Lightning have a clear edge in offense. However, that hasn’t been the case in these playoffs. The Stars have had contributions from all over the lineup and have 62 goals in 21 playoff games. As for the Lightning, they have been relying pretty heavily on their top players, particularly winger Nikita Kucherov and center Brayden Point. But, overall as a team, they have 59 goals in 19 playoff games.
As for individual players, winger Dennis Gurianov leads the Stars with nine goals in 21 playoff games. Meanwhile, defenseman Miro Heiskanen leads Dallas in assists and points with 17 and 22, respectively, in 21 games. Moving on to Tampa Bay, Point and defenseman Victor Hedman are tied for the team lead in goals with nine apiece, although Point has played two fewer games (17 to Hedman’s 19). Kucherov leads the team in assists and points, with 20 and 26, respectively, in 19 games.
So, while on paper the Lightning have far more firepower than the Stars, they’ve scored a near equal amount these playoffs. However, the Lightning are the better possession team, so I think I need to give a slight advantage to them there. They definitely have the advantage offensively if they get captain Steven Stamkos back, who has yet to play a game in the bubble. However, even though he’s skated a few times in recent days, it’s a long shot that he’ll be back, at least to the start the series, so don’t count on that happening. Either way, the Lightning have been a bit better offensively than the Stars this postseason (because goals aren’t everything). But, who knows what’ll happen in this series.
As for defense, the Stars are led by Miro Heiskanen, who, at just 21 years old, is rapidly becoming a top defender in the league. Meanwhile, the Lightning are led by perennial Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman, who has been absolutely incredible these past few series. Behind each of them is a strong defense core that has been playing well. Both teams were near the top of the league defensively in the regular season, and that hasn’t changed much in the playoffs. Statistically, the Stars have taken a small step back, but they’ve still been incredible. However, the Lightning have gotten even better. So, I’d say they have the advantage in this category too. But, as I said, both teams have been outstanding, so Stars fans shouldn’t exactly be worried about their defense.
Moving on to goaltending, the Stars are anchored by Anton Khudobin. Khudobin has been one of the greatest stories of these playoffs, as he’s the Stars backup goalie normally but was thrust into action due to an injury to starter Ben Bishop. These are the 34-year-old’s first playoff games, as he had never seen the ice in the postseason in any of his previous ten seasons in the league.
Since taking over as the starter, he’s been nothing but incredible. He holds a 2.62 goals-against average (GAA) and 0.920 save percentage (SV%) through 19 playoff games. Not only that, but he’s made some truly spectacular saves and kept his team in games they didn’t deserve to be in. It’s impossible not to be happy for him, as on top of all that, he’s just a really likable player. Should the Stars win the Cup, he should win the Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP. If he doesn’t expect angry tweets and probably an angry blog from me shortly after!
Anyway, as for Tampa Bay, Vezina Trophy finalist (although he shouldn’t be that this year in my opinion) Andrei Vasilevskiy has played in all 19 of the team’s playoff games. Through them, he holds an eye-popping 1.82 GAA and 0.932 SV%. He’s certainly turned it around from a shaky regular season (by his standards).
Despite Vasilevskiy’s superior numbers, I have to say this category is a wash. The only reason Vasilevskiy’s numbers are better is Tampa’s defense is better. Goaltending is perhaps the biggest reason why both of these teams are in the Stanley Cup Final, and I don’t expect it to change. This series will likely come down to who’s the better goaltender, and even at that, it’s going to be close. They’ve both been that good.
Finally, as for the special teams, the Stars have been excellent on both, with a 27.3 PP% and 83.3 PK%. The Lightning, on the other hand, have struggled on the power play a bit by their standards, with a 17.9 PP%. However, if it wakes up, it’s incredibly dangerous. As for the PK, they’re about as even with the Stars in that respect as they can get, as they have an 83.6 PK% success rate.
So, the Stars hold a clear advantage in special teams here. Their power play is ten percent more successful than the Lightning’s, and that is absolutely nothing to sneeze at. Special teams can make or break games, particularly this far in the playoffs. Both teams have great penalty kills though, and they’ll be more important than ever in this series. So, it’ll be very interesting to watch how this plays out.
I put this section here because I knew people would be looking for it. However, I’m far too superstitious to make a prediction. So, you’ll be leaving here disappointed. Feel free to drop your predictions in the comments though!
I will say this though. While the Lightning are clearly the better team on paper, they’ve been about equal this postseason. So, don’t count the Stars out yet. This is bound to be a long, exciting series, and even though I’m really not a fan of either team, I’m excited to watch. They’ve both been playing intense hockey for a while now, but it’s going to be even more so in this series because, well, it’s the Stanley Cup. Neither team came this far to give up now. So, buckle up, everybody. It’s time for the most important hockey games of the year!
-Lydia Murray (@lydia_murray12)
Featured image courtesy of NHL.com
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