So here we have it, a Stanley Cup being awarded in September. In a bubble. It will be either the Tampa Bay Lightning (whose only Cup win came back in 2004) against the Dallas Stars (lone Cup in 1999). It's the first time two Sun Belt teams have faced off in the Final.
The Lightning -- looking to become the first preseason Stanley Cup favorites to win it all since the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015 -- started the season slow, then became the top offensive team in the regular season. If they win the Cup, they will have defeated the No. 1 defensive team (the Boston Bruins) in the league -- as well as No. 2 (Stars), No. 3 (Columbus Blue Jackets) and No. 9 (New York Islanders). Not shabby, especially for a team that has been playing without captain Steven Stamkos all summer. GM Julien BriseBois said there's still a possibility Stamkos plays in the Final, but he will not dress for Game 1. Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov have more than shouldered the load atop the lineup, while Tampa Bay rebounded from its embarrassing playoff exit last season by adding physical players such as Zach Bogosian, Patrick Maroon and Blake Coleman -- while also adopting a grittier mindset. The Lightning have yet to lose consecutive games all postseason.
"I'm excited for our players because this journey, especially after what happened last year and how we kind of took it on the chin, and rightfully so," coach Jon Cooper said. "We deserved to take it on the chin. But to counter punch like we have this year, good on those guys."
The Stars' path this season hasn't been linear either. After an encouraging playoff run in 2019, the veteran Stars began the season sluggish, going 1-7-1. They found their winning ways, then in December second-year coach Jim Montgomery was fired, and later went to alcohol rehabilitation. Rick Bowness, who has coached in 2,266 games and been on an NHL bench in five decades, took over. He is the NHL's oldest coach at age 65. The Stars have been adaptable under Bowness. They found their offense in a second-round series against Colorado, scoring 28 goals in the seven-game series. They then tightened things defensively and stymied the Golden Knights' forwards in the Western Conference finals.
It has been a wild ride for the Stars, who have cycled through four coaches since 2017 and have been on the cusp several times during the Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin era, but also have had a handful of low moments. It was just 22 months ago that the Stars' president went on a profanity-laced rant lamenting the highly paid duo's lack of production. Now they're four wins away from a championship.
"We've been through a lot of stuff," Seguin said. "A lot of things have been said about us, and said about him. Now we're in this moment, and we have a great opportunity in front of us to prove a lot of people wrong."
What would a Stanley Cup mean to them?
"Obviously, the world," Benn said. "This is why you play the game."
Let's compare the two teams in six categories, and make a prediction as to who will raise the Stanley Cup this year.
First line: Coach Rick Bowness reunited his big three -- Benn, Alexander Radulov and Seguin -- on the top line. While the Stars have made it this far with Seguin scoring only two goals in 20 games, the 31-year-old Benn is playing some of the best hockey during his 11-year Stars tenure (18 points in 21 games, including three goals and two assists in five games versus Vegas). According to Natural Stat Trick, the trio has an expected goals for percentage of 68.75%. Tampa Bay has been rolling out Ondrej Palat, Point and Kucherov, which has been one of the most dominant lines in the entire playoffs. Tampa Bay's top trio has scored 21 goals, and they've been on the ice for six against -- outshooting opponents 193-95. They have an expected goal percentage of 77.78%, according to Natural Stat Trick. It is worth monitoring Point's injury status, as he was banged up in the Conference finals, which forced him to miss two games. Advantage: Lightning
Forward depth: The Lightning's second line of Anthony Cirelli, Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn has looked off at times this postseason; they've been on the ice for just one goal for and six against. The Stars have two streaking players on the second line: Denis Gurianov and Joe Pavelski, who each have nine goals. That's huge for Pavelski, who scored just 14 goals all regular season. After 1,030 career games, Pavelski is hungry for his first Stanley Cup. The Stars' lineup is filled with opportunistic players (look no further than cult hero Joel Kiviranta), but the depth in Tampa Bay's bottom five (it has been typically dressing only 11 forwards and seven defensemen) can easily match it. Tampa Bay's improved third line -- featuring trade deadline acquisitions Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, and centered by Yanni Gourde -- has been especially good, outscoring teams 10-5 while playing a physical game. Advantage: Tie
Defense: The Stars' top two right side defensemen, John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen, have been spectacular all summer. Heiskanen is a legitimate Conn Smythe Trophy candidate, averaging 25 minutes per game, with 22 points in 21 contests. "He makes it seem effortless when he skates up and down the ice," said the Lightning's Victor Hedman, the Conn Smythe front-runner on the Tampa Bay side. Hedman has been a workhorse this summer (26:31 per game) while scoring nine goals -- the most of any defenseman in a single playoff since Brian Leetch in 1994. "It's just unbelievable how well he plays," Tampa Bay's Mikhail Sergachev said of Hedman. "Sometimes you can play 30 minutes and do nothing, and he's doing everything for us."
Though Dallas clamped down defensively against Vegas, and can be a heavy, physical team to get past, analytics suggest the defense has taken a step back this summer. The Stars' expected goals against per 60 minutes at even strength has gone from 2.33 in the regular season to 2.49 in the postseason, while Lightning have gone from 2.46 to a 1.66, according to Natural Stat Trick. Tampa Bay also has the edge in third-pairing defenseman, while Dallas has been dipping into its "Black Aces" pool. Advantage: Lightning
Goaltending: We have two Russian goalies who have carried their teams here, both making 19 starts this summer. The Lightning's Andrei Vasilevskiy is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, and is up for the award again this season. The 26-year-old leads all goalies this summer with 14 wins (and just five losses), along with a .931 save percentage and 1.82 goals-against average. "He's the best goalie in the league," Hedman said. "No questions asked." The 34-year-old Khudobin has had a career far more traveled -- but in his 11 NHL seasons, he has always been the understudy, never the star. But with Ben Bishop injured, Khudobin has his opportunity with the Stars -- and is making the most of it, especially in the conference finals against Vegas in which he posted a .950 save percentage. His numbers are slightly lesser than Vasilevskiy's this summer but still impressive: .921 save percentage, 2.14 GAA and one shutout. Advantage: Lightning
Coaching: For the first time in Stanley Cup history, a head coach is facing off against one of his former assistants in the Stanley Cup Final. Rick Bowness spent five years on Tampa's bench under Jon Cooper, before he left in 2018. Bowness is an NHL lifer who is looking for perhaps his last shot at glory. Cooper will always have the reputation as a good regular-season coach until he can take a team over the hump. While they know each other's styles well, they're both apt at making necessary adjustments. Advantage: Tie
Special teams: Dallas has the fifth-best power play this summer (27.3%), which was also an area of strength during the season. Tampa Bay's power play has been in a bit of a funk, including going 0-for-5 in their last game. Overall the Lightning are 12th on the man advantage this summer (17.9%). The penalty kills are quite similar this summer: Dallas has the ninth-best penalty kill (83.3%), while the Lightning are eighth (83.6%). Advantage: Stars
Prediction: Lightning in seven. Since 2016-17, no team in the NHL has won as many games as the Lightning (201). Tampa Bay has been on the cusp, and set regular-season records, but finally this year seems to have put it all together. As long as Point stays healthy in this series, the Lightning's depth should be the difference-maker. Expect this to be a physical, exciting series.