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Sports Authority

McGuinness: Previewing the 2020 Stanley Cup final

| Monday, September 21, 2020

Welcome to the biggest stage in sports, like we’ve never seen it before.

The National Hockey League will be the first of the four major sports leagues to award a championship during the COVID-19 pandemic. More waiting and effort have gone into this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs than any before it, and hopefully more than any after it.

After qualifying rounds, the Stanley Cup Playoffs officially began Aug. 11. Sixteen teams: 16 wins away from achieving every hockey player’s ultimate dream. It has been thrilling. It has been a little weird. But it definitely has been fun, and for fans of 29 teams, that’s all that matters.

As for the other two, their season has one final chapter. What they will write is up to them. Here they are, four wins separating them from the greatest trophy in sports. In a year full of unanswerable questions, the 2019-2020 NHL season only has one left to answer: Who will win the Stanley Cup?

The Matchup: No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6) vs. No. 3 Dallas Stars (37-24-8)

The last time here:

Tampa Bay’s current core reached the 2015 finals, back when they were considered young guns. They lost to the Blackhawks dynasty in six. Dallas lost the 2000 finals in six to the Devils. Both teams have one other finals appearance, with Dallas winning in 1999 on a goal that shouldn’t have counted and Tampa winning in 2004 in large part because a goal that should’ve counted against them didn’t. We’ll see if this year’s winner can do it without slipping a twenty in the referees’ pockets (just kidding … probably).

The journey here:

Tampa Bay took down the team that swept them in the first round last year (Columbus) and the team they won their last playoff series against before this year (Boston) in five games. The Islanders gave them a bit of a tougher time, as Tampa dominated most games but needed six contests to close out the series. Dallas came out of the gates slow, scoring in the final minute of Game 4 of their first round series against Calgary to avoid going down 3-1 in the series.

Since then, the Stars have been almost unstoppable, winning three straight against Calgary, taking a 3-1 series lead against the Avalanche and then winning Game 7 in overtime on a goal by a guy no one had ever heard of. Then they knocked off the last remaining “favorite” in the West, taking Vegas to task in five games.

Conn Smythe (Playoff MVP) watch:

TB: This is Victor Hedman’s award to lose if Tampa Bay wins. Hedman’s nine goals put him in an eight-way tie for the second most goals in the playoffs, but he’s the only defenseman in that group. Hedman has been an absolute machine for the Lightning all playoffs, easily leading the team in time-on-ice per game, playing significant minutes with just about every other Tampa defender.

DAL: Miro Heiskanen is the obvious candidate here. Entering the Conference Finals, Heiskanen’s 21 points led the field among the final four teams. You’d think it was illegal for the Stars to score when he or John Klingberg aren’t on the ice; something like 90% of the Stars goals have been scored with at least one of those guys on the ice. He set up Denis Gurianov’s OT series winner against Vegas and has looked like a poised veteran with the puck all playoffs.

The Lightning win because:

Simply put, it’s their time. Tampa has been all around the Cup the last few years. They have some of the top high end talent in the league even with captain Steven Stamkos seeming unlikely to return. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point have proven they’re more than capable of carrying a championship team. A lot of secondary pieces remain from their 2015 Finals run and since then, the Lightning have done a great job finding support players. The price to acquire some of them was hefty, but everyone said it would be worth it if they won a ring. They’re four wins away.

Tampa’s backend might be their biggest strength. Their left-side is absolutely loaded, featuring Norris finalist Hedman, former Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh and young star Mikhail Sergachev. All three could be first-pair defensemen on more than half of the teams in the league. The right-side looks weak on paper, but the left has carried them to a solid playoff performance. Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the best goalies in the NHL and, after struggling in last year’s playoffs, has been lights out this year. Whether it’s offense or defense, 5-on-5 or special teams, the Lightning are a tough team to beat.

The Stars win because:

They’ve proved they can win in multiple ways, doing whatever it takes to get past an opponent. Dallas was the second best defensive team in the regular season, while lagging behind offensively. Even dealing with a significant injury of their own, as former Lightning member Ben Bishop has been unfit to play for almost the entire playoffs, the Stars have thrived over the last two-and-a-half rounds. They survived a surprising midseason coaching change due to off-ice circumstances, as well as a 1-7-1 start to the season.

Dallas’ turnaround started when they added Alexander Radulov in 2017, forming one of the deadliest top lines on paper. Captain and linemate Jamie Benn has been a beast in the playoffs, and Radulov has been clutch as well, scoring two goals in Game 7 against the Avalanche and an OT winner against Vegas. Adding Joe Pavelski to the fray last summer finally gave the Stars a legitimate secondary scorer, and it was his last-minute game-tying goal in Game 4 against the Flames (his third of the game) to spark the Stars turnaround. Add in a mix of solid young players like Gurianov and Roope Hintz, and the Stars forward group is actually quite formidable. 

Dallas’ top three defensemen are as good as any and can easily match up with Tampa’s. Heiskanen’s dominance has already been detailed, but John Klingberg has been just as good. The Stars’ power-play defenseman has 16 points in the playoffs. Though he and fellow defenseman Esa Lindell haven’t been great analytically, they’ve shown great chemistry in the past and I’d expect a bounce-back in the Finals.

However, their defensive depth pales in comparison to Tampa’s; it’s easily the biggest mismatch of the series. Anton Khudobin has quietly been one of the best backup goalies in the league three years running and he’s proven he can hack it on the biggest stage.

The pick:

Even with all of the injuries, even with how good the Stars have been playing, I still feel that is Tampa Bay’s year. Granted, I felt that heading into last year’s tournament, but this year I thought they were either going out in Round 1 or winning it all, especially when they drew a rematch with Columbus in the East Quarterfinals. But Tampa Bay has looked absolutely unstoppable so far in these playoffs. The Bolts were my picks to win it all when the playoffs began, and they haven‘t given me any reason to change my mind.

Lightning in six.

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