Well, it took the chaos of 2020 to make it happen, but Gary Bettman finally has his all southern Stanley Cup Final. It will be Tampa Bay Lightning doing battle with the Dallas Stars for the honor of taking home hockey’s holy grail.
Puck drops on the Stanley Cup Final tonight all will run through the end of September, if necessary. It’s unusual to see back-to-back games during a Stanley Final but the NHL clearly wants to wrap this up as quickly as possible. I could be wrong on this, but I believe this is the first time there have been back-to-back Final games since the Penguins and Red Wings in 2008.
All games will be played at Rogers Place in Edmonton.
After starting with 24 teams split across two bubbles, it’s down to just the Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning and the Western Conference champion Dallas Stars playing for the Stanley Cup.
Tampa Bay Lightning
A year after suffering one of the biggest upsets in Stanley Cup playoff history, the Tampa Bay Lightning bounced back find themselves back in the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in team history and second time since 2015. They will be playing for the second Stanley Cup in franchise history.
Entering the playoffs as the No. 2 seed following round robin play, the Lightning vanquished some demons with a five game victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. They were able to build off the victory and rout the President’s Trophy winning Boston Bruins in just five games in their second round series.
Waiting for the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals were the suddenly white hot Islanders and the scrappy underdogs gave the Lightning everything they could handle. After leading the series 3-1, it looked like the Lightning were cruising to another five game victory but the Islanders forced a Game 6 which the Lightning won in overtime to win the Eastern Conference.
Question to ponder: Will the Lightning have the services of Steven Stamkos in the Final? Stamkos has not played a single game inside the bubble and was already out weeks before the NHL ever shut down in March. He was on the ice for the Prince of Wales Trophy presentation but his availability remains up in the air.
For the first time since 2000, the Dallas Stars are back in the Stanley Cup Final following their surprise run through the Western Conference. Like their Final opponent, the Stars are also seeking their second Stanley Cup title in franchise history.
If you had to guess the eight teams who played in the round robin, the Stars could easily be the side that slips your mind. On top of that, they were rather unimpressive in their opening three games, but scoring just enough to claim the No. 3 seed in the West. Since then, they have been anything but unimpressive and in the process shocked the hockey world.
In the playoffs, they cruised on past the Calgary Flames and suddenly their offense started to awaken. Up next was the Stanley Cup favorite Colorado Avalanche whom the Stars knocked out in a crazy Game 7 after almost blowing a 3-1 series lead. Last up was the Vegas Golden Knights who once again everyone thought was a Stanley Cup favorite before the Stars eliminated them in a quick and easy
Question to ponder: Can Anton Khudobin keep this up? If the Stars are to have success against Tampa Bay, they will not only need the offense to keep pouring in the goals, they will also need Khudobin to slow down the Lightning attack. He may not need to match Andrei Vasilevski save for save, but he still needs to play at a level that got them this far.
Conn Smythe Watch
There can only be one Conn Smythe winner and this playoffs has given us plenty of worth nominees from both sides.
Brayden Point: Simply for scoring that goal in the fifth overtime against the Blue Jackets should get Point some votes. Other than that, this playoff run has really shined a light on how great of a player he really is.
Victor Hedman: With no Stamkos in the lineup, Hedman has stepped into the leadership role and been the de facto captain in the bubble. His nine goals lead the way for defenseman in these playoffs and he still has time to add to that total.
Nikita Kucherov: After disappearing in the playoffs last season, Kucherov has redeemed himself inside the bubble thus far, leading all scorers through three rounds. If it comes down to him and Point, whoever has the most points could get the nod.
Miro Heiskanen: If you aren’t familiar with Heiskanen you might want to use this Stanley Cup Final to get acquainted. At just 21 years of age, Heiskanen has blossomed into one of the best defenders in the league and leads all blue liners in scoring this playoffs.
Anton Khudobin: To beat the Lightning, Khudobin will need to be at his best as he was against the Golden Knights. It’s been quite a journey for the veteran netminder but now he leads this improbable Stars team to the brink of history.
Jamie Benn: If the Stars win, it’s likely one of the two guys above is taking home the Conn Smythe Trophy, but you can’t discount what Benn has done during this run. He has shown flashes of the player who won an Art Ross and they will need that scoring here.
On paper, this matchup looks to be as one sided as any Stanley Cup matchup in the past decade if not longer. Tampa is a team everyone expected to be here while many picked Dallas to crash out in the first round. To this point, I have picked in favor of the Lightning each round and against the Stars in every round so something has to give.
For the sake of entertaining hockey in the future it's probably best the Lightning win given how much copycat work NHL general managers are willing to do. On the other hand, this year has delivered a new surprise at each turn and not always good. My heart says go with the Stars just to root for maximum chaos while my head says the Lightning because they just look so darn good.
I have to go with the smart pick over the fun one.
Lightning in 6.
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Tampa Bay Lightning