The 22-team, two-city NHL restart that began in August will culminate over the next two weeks during the Stanley Cup Final. One of the league’s best regular season teams over the past few years, the Tampa Bay Lightning, will make their first appearance since 2015 following disappointing recent playoff exits. The Dallas Stars, on the other hand, will be making their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since the 1999-2000 season. Both have one title in their franchise history.
Game 1: Saturday, September 19 (7:30 PM, NBC)
Game 2: Monday, September 21 (8:00 PM, NBCSN)
Game 3: Wednesday, September 23 (8:00 PM, NBCSN)
Game 4: Friday, September 25 (8:00 PM, NBC)
Game 5*: Saturday, September 26 (8:00 PM, NBC)
Game 6*: Monday, September 28 (8:00 PM, NBC)
Game 7*: Wednesday, September 30 (8:00 PM, NBC)
(* if necessary)
Eastern Conference Champions: Tampa Bay Lightning
(Photo: Frank Gunn/AP)
Regular Season: 43-21-6 (92 points)
Round Robin: 2-1-0
1st Round: 4-1 over (7) Columbus
2nd Round: 4-1 over (4) Boston
Conference Final: 4-2 over (6) NY Islanders
After being swept in the first round in 2019, the Lightning faced a lot of criticism for being the President’s Trophy winners (62 wins and 128 points), and basically not showing up in April. The Lightning entered the 2019-20 season trying to shake this with one of the deepest teams in the league.
Tampa Bay began to pick up the pace in late December after a slow start, embarking on a stretch in which they went 23-3-0 between December 23 and February 17. That run vaulted them right back towards the top of the conference, as they had the second-most points at the pause.
A rematch in the first round against Columbus brought out the ghosts of 2019, but Tampa Bay was not phased this time around. After winning the infamous five-overtime thriller in Game 1 (the fourth-longest game in NHL history), the Lightning made quick work of the Blue Jackets, sending them home in overtime in Game 5.
The second round matched them up with the President’s Trophy winners, the Boston Bruins, who experienced a lot of issues within the bubble. Boston, the best team in hockey, lost all three round-robin games and did not look the same as they did during the regular season. Vezina Trophy frontrunner Tuukka Rask had to leave the bubble, thrusting Jaroslav Halak into the starting role. Halak himself did not look great in the bubble, despite a solid regular season, and it showed in this series. After dropping Game 1 and going to overtime in Game 2, Tampa eventually made quick work of their division rival in five games.
The Eastern Conference Finals brought on the third-straight strong defensive opponent for the Lightning in the New York Islanders. New York was the Cinderella story of the bubble, being the only team from the qualifier round to be among the league’s final four. The Islanders won both games that Brayden Point didn’t play, but with their offense intact Tampa was able to fend off the feisty Islanders.
Tampa Bay’s Key to Victory: Consistent Offense
The potential return of Steven Stamkos adds a completely new dimension to this series. Tampa Bay this season had to not rely solely on their offense, and it got them this far. Against Dallas, however, they will need to find the back of the net consistently, especially after what the Stars did to Las Vegas defensively in the West Finals. If Tampa Bay’s vast and deep offense comes to play, it might be a quick series, especially due to Dallas having an offense that ranked towards the bottom of the league during the regular season.
Western Conference Champions: Dallas Stars
(Photo: The Canadian Press/AP)
Regular Season: 37-24-8 (82 points)
Round Robin: 1-2-0
1st Round: 4-2 over (6) Calgary
2nd Round: 4-3 over (2) Colorado
Conference Final: 4-1 over (1) Las Vegas
After losing in Game 7 of the second round last postseason, the Stars looked to bolster their roster in the free agent market by adding veterans Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry. Despite these additions and the mostly-intact core, they fell flat on their face to begin this season. Dallas lost eight of their first nine games, digging themselves a deep hole right off the jump. In a complete reversal, however, they won 17 of their next 23 games to thrust themselves right back into the postseason hunt.
On December 10, news broke of the firing of their head coach, Jim Montgomery, following what the team said was “unprofessional conduct.” Assistant Rick Bowness took the reins, guiding Dallas the rest of the way. The Stars lost their last six games before the pause, giving them almost no momentum to carry over into the bubble.
During the regular season, Dallas had the 26th-ranked offense in the NHL, making a deep postseason run a tall task. In their first round series against Calgary, things began to change. They scored five or more goals in three of the six games, including seven in Game 6.
The offensive spark carried over into the second round against a very fast, offensively potent Colorado Avalanche team. The Stars scored five goals in four of the seven games, with a seven game total of 28. Despite the Avalanche having a very depleted roster due to injuries, they were able to push the Stars to a Game 7 after being down 3-1. An overtime goal from rookie Joel Kiviranta sent Colorado home.
Dallas faced its toughest task in the Western Conference Finals, taking on a Las Vegas team that seemingly has never been bad in its history. The Stars, known mainly for their defense throughout the season, held the Golden Knights to eight goals in five games.
Dallas’s Key to Victory: Anton Khudobin
Khudobin was fantastic in the Vegas series, only allowing eight goals on 166 shots. Despite finding offensive strides during the postseason, the expanded track record of this team shows it won’t always score three to four goals a game. This is why Khudobin is vital to their title hopes. If he can suppress the Tampa Bay offense and reduce it to somewhat average, Dallas has the window to score what they need to win games.
Prediction: Tampa Bay in Five Games
It has been a great run for the Dallas Stars, a team that has had to overcome so much this season, between multiple losing streaks and losing their coach. They have looked good in each of their three series, but this opponent is a different breed than the previous ones.
Tampa Bay offers so much in every facet of the game. They have deep offensive talent, a better defense than in past seasons, and a goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy who is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner.
The Lightning should get it done, and if Dallas can’t keep up with or limit the offensive barrage, it could be a quick series.
(Cover Photo: NBC Sports)