The time has finally come, with only two teams left in the Bubble, the NHL has reached the pinnacle of it’s season. Tampa should come as no surprise, they have been a powerhouse in East for half a decade, finally returning to the finals for the first time since losing to Chicago in 2015. Dallas on the other hand is returning to the finals for the first time since their back to back appearances at the turn of the millennium. If you need a reminder of how that went just ask Lindy Ruff.
HOW WE GOT HERE
Both of these teams took part in the Round Robin mini series for their respective conferences. Tampa took the second spot in the East which allowed the enact some revenge on the Blue Jackets in the first round. They followed that up by blowing past the Bruins before taking down Trotz and the Islanders in the East Final. Despite never getting Stamkos back from injury in the Bubble, the Lightning have been led in large part by Point and Kucherov who lead the league in playoff scoring as well as Hedman and Vasilevskyi. The depth of this team has been key through out the playoffs, proving that GM Julien Brisebois’ gamble was well worth the investment.
The Stars have been channeling their inner Muhammad Ali and Rope-a-Doped their way to the finals. Brick wall level goaltending, sheer perseverance and timely goal scoring has been the recipe of success for the Stars. This team has one player averaging over a point per game, and in total the team has 5 players with a +/- rating above 0. The Stars are a statistical anamoly which made Tyler Seguins comments even more ironic.
The thing is, he’s right, analytics are overrated, but Tyler Seguin still thinks Corsi is relevant (if this statement surprised you it’s time to do a quick google search). Players HATE analytics because their primary use for NHL clubs is to win arbitration and contract negotiations. Outside of that, MAYBE, a half dozen teams are actually making decisions based on analytics on a daily basis. Just ask the Panthers and Coyotes how that has been working out for them. With that being said, here are some irrefutable facts for you Tyler:
- Since Game 6 against the Flames the Stars have been outshot in every game but three (one was a tie).
- Since that Game 6 the Stars have a negative shot difference of -94.
- The Stars had more scoring chances than their opponents 12 times in the playoffs (incl. Round Robin). Five came against the Flames
- The Stars have had more High Danger Scoring Chance (HDSC) than their opponents seven times. Four came against the Flames
- The Stars had an Expected Goal (xGF, measures the likelyhood of a goal based on shot location) above 2.0 just four times. Two of those came against the Flames.
So yes, from an analytical standpoint this team defies all logic. This was nothing against the Flames but it’s more so to point out how one series is pulling up the overall average of each category. These numbers also do not properly reflect the game play when you actually watch, but let’s not pretend that the Stars are outplaying their opponent on a nightly basis. Hate to break it to you Tyler but the main reason you are winning is because your goalie is showing shades of J-S Giguere in 2003.
WHO HAS THE EDGE?
Forward: Tamp Bay Lightning
This one isn’t even close and the Lightning are missing arguably their best pure goal scorer. The Lightning have a depth component that the Stars cannot compete with. With that being said the young Finnish Mafia on the Stars roster has been a lot of fun to watch, and that doesn’t include Gurianov. Kucherov and Point lead the playoffs in scoring and it is quite the heavy drop off from there but this team’s depth literally beats opponents into submission while taking turns providing depth scoring. Benn, Seguin and Radulov will need to find another gear to drive this team offensively and if Pavelski can continue to score goal like he’s still in his 20s, then the Stars have a chance of keeping this close.
Defence: Tampa Bay Lightning
As we move closer to the crease with these two teams, the difference in skill level at each position gets smaller and smaller. The Lightning defense core will go as far as Victor Hedman will take them. He is the best defenseman in the league (I have said this before so this isn’t recency bias) and they have a fantastic cast of complimentary players from McDonaugh, Sergachev, Cernak and Shattenkirk. Yes I know I basically laid out their entire D-core but that’s how good it is.
Stars fans on the other hand will have a warranted gripe with this decision. Miro Heiskanen currently leads the league in defenseman scoring in the playoffs and Klingberh is not far behind him. The problem is that is about where it stops. Much like the Habs, this team is very top heavy on D, but unlike the Habs they actually have NHL quality depth behind their big horses. I really like Oleksiak’s play so far this year, I haven’t watch every minute of every game, but from what I have seen he is filling his role admirably. Lindell has rounded out this top four very nicely, no diving this year which is an improvement, but the Stars third pairing is slightly concerning when you consider the team they are up against.
Goaltending: Anton “We’re NOT going home” Khudobin
I am a very stats based guy, ironic considering I despise analytics but I am not naive to discredit them and I fully understand their value to sports when used properly. The eye test, is and always will be king in my opinion, which is why you just need to watch Khudobin play to understand why he should win the Conn Smyth no matter the outcome. He low key had the best Save Percentage in the league this season but he has undoubtedly taken his game to another level.
When you compare this to his counter part, who does have all of the statistical accolades to back up his solid play in the playoffs, who do you give the edge to? Vasilevskyi’s 1.82 Goals Against Average and 0.931 Save Percantage are almost on par with Carey Price; need I say more? Slight difference is Vasi only has to worry about the opposing team shooting on him and not his own as well! Rant aside Vasilevskyi has an equally strong case for the Conn Smythe but this decision really comes down to a gut feeling.
And at the end of the day, I quite simply resonate with this video on a deep level, specifically at 3:00 am.
Special Teams: Dallas Stars
Dallas holds the edge here, their Power Play has scored eight more goals in the Bubble than Tampa. The Stars are operating at a 27.3% success rate against the Lightnings 17.9%. Both of these teams have a phenomenal top unit, but Dallas’ success in the playoffs has a lot to do with converting on the PP to win games. Both teams have a similar success rate on the Penalty Kill so if Tampa can limit Dallas’ opportunities and minimize their impact with the man advantage it could mean they will be hoisting the cup.
Tampa Bay: Alex Killorn
Killorn has emerged as a glue guy, he plays a hard North/South game while still possessing the hands and skill to be able to dance around the best of them. The Montreal native has matured into one of the most important players on this roster and has all the talent and determination to be a difference maker in this series.
Dallas: Do I really need to say it, or is it not blatantly obvious by now?
If Khudobin can continue to stand on his head, to allow the vets up front to pot an opportunity or two, Dallas has a very real chance in the finals. In 2003 Giguere fizzled out a bit by the time the Stanley Cup Final rolled around because he was tired. I don’t think that Khudobin has had to shoulder the same workload but he will need to continue this play to give his team any chance at all.
Tampa Bay Lightning
I will take the lightning in 5. Much like Giguere, I think that Khudobin’s cinderella run will come to an end. I still think he will stand on his head and give Dallas a chance every night, but people are ignoring Tampa’s own resilience. In their series against the Islanders, the Lightning only held the lead for a grand total of 8.8 seconds.
The Islanders can have their moral victory just like Dallas can, the Lightning will take the Cup.