Southeast Division Watch (January 31)

With the All-Star break over, it’s time for the NHL playoff races to intensify. Every week, we’ll provide updates for each division’s outlook. The biggest contenders and/or closest races will receive the greatest amount of attention.

Southeast Division outlook

1. Tampa Bay Lightning (31-15-5 for 67 pts; 51 Games Played)

Current streak: five wins in a row

Week ahead: three home games – Philadelphia (Tuesday), Washington (Friday) and St. Louis (Sunday).

Thoughts: The Lightning started off their epic 12-game homestand with two wins. This week won’t be easy with a game against the top team in the East and their biggest divisional threat, but at least they get plenty of time to rest.

2. Washington Capitals (27-15-9 for 63 pts; 51 GP)

Current streak: two straight losses

Week ahead: home vs. Montreal (Tues), away vs. Tampa Bay (Fri) and home vs. Pittsburgh (Sun).

Thoughts: Their schedule is similar to Tampa Bay’s week, at least in the way the games are tough but spread out in a friendly way. Friday’s game is the biggest, but they should be mad at themselves if they don’t win at least two of these games considering the fact that the Penguins are banged up.

3. Atlanta Thrashers (24-19-9 for 57 pts; 52 GP)

Current streak: One win.

Week ahead: Home vs. Islanders (Tues), home vs. Calgary (Thurs) and road vs. Carolina (Sat).

Thoughts: The Thrashers stumbled into the break before winning their last game, but this week presents an opportunity for them to strengthen their playoff foothold. Winnable home games against the Islanders and Flames give way to an important game against the hard-charging Hurricanes, their biggest playoff threat.

4. Carolina Hurricanes (26-19-6 for 56 pts; 50 GP)

Current streak: Two wins in a row.

Week ahead: Home vs. Boston (Tues), road vs. Toronto (Thurs) and home vs. Atlanta on Saturday.

Thoughts: The Bruins are going to be a tough out, but perhaps the Hurricanes will be pumped up after hosting a successful All-Star weekend? Carolina needs to take Toronto seriously to give themselves a great chance at earning at least two wins this week. If they could beat Atlanta in regulation, they might find themselves in the top eight by Saturday night.

5. Florida Panthers (22-22-5 for 49 pts; 49 GP)

Current streak: Lost their last game.

Week ahead: Three road games – Toronto (Tues), Montreal (Wed) and New Jersey (Fri).

Thoughts: The Panthers’ optimism can be gauged by how they look at this week. There is the half-empty: three road games and a back-to-back to start things off. Then there’s the half-full: they play against two cellar dwelling teams in the Maple Leafs and Devils, so the games are winnable. If they flop this week, they might want to begin eye-balling a lottery pick.

Bettman: Next NHL season could start in December or January

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EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — Gary Bettman will take his first sigh of relief in months when he presents the Stanley Cup.

”Maybe I’ll get a full night sleep,” the NHL Commissioner said.

Maybe one, and then the work begins on next season. Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly had more questions of their own than answers next season, though it’s always been questionable if it will start on Dec. 1 as tentatively planned.

Bettman on Saturday raised the possibility of a start sometime later in December or even January, though the plan remains for each team to play 82 games and the league hold a full playoffs.

Much like its plan to resume this season, the league hopes to adapt to the pandemic circumstances in the U.S., Canada and worldwide and is open to adjusting on the fly as the situation evolves. Acknowledging there are factors like the U.S.-Canada border and local jurisdictions out of his control that could affect travel and attendance, Bettman indicated Saturday he wouldn’t be surprised if the season begins later than scheduled but would like to avoid playing deep into next summer.

”If there’s an option to consider, believe me, we’re considering it,” Bettman said during his annual pre- Stanley Cup Final news conference. ”It’s conceivable that we start without fans, that we move to socially distant fans at some point and by some point in time maybe our buildings are open.”

There’s no way to know yet what a 2020-21 NHL season will look like, and the league is watching what’s going on in European hockey and the other North American professional sports leagues and college athletics to see what’s possible.

”Our goal is to get back to as great a sense of normalcy as possible under whatever circumstances are presented,” Bettman said.

One of the circumstances at play is the closure of the U.S.-Canada border to nonessential travel, which has more of an effect on the NHL than other pro sports leagues because it has seven teams in Canada and 24 in the U.S. until Seattle becomes the 32nd franchise in 2021.

Canada did not allow Major League Baseball’s Blue Jays to play in Toronto this season because of cross-border travel by them and other teams. The Canadian government approved the NHL holding its playoffs in quarantined bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton but has not allowed family members who aren’t Canadian citizens join, as had been planned by the league and players.

”That application remains pending,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. ”I think at this point, I don’t have a high level of expectation that it will be approved. But it has not formally been denied at this point, either.”

The league is less than two weeks away from pulling off a successful return, after the season was halted March 12. More than 30,000 tests inside the bubbles turned up zero positive coronavirus test results.

Before the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning opened the final, Bettman acknowledged he’s not taking a victory lap yet. He’s still focused on getting through this series even as preparations begin for next season.

Bettman said the league has ”started informally thinking” about it and conceded there will be a financial hit because attendance makes up at least 50% of revenue. He’s not worried about any franchises not making it through this and said Seattle joining the league won’t be pushed back.

”While we know it’ll be less (money), we know there’s a substantial revenue impact, I’m comfortable that our franchises will be strong enough to weather this,” Bettman said. ”Our franchises will get through this and will come out stronger on the other side.”

Those franchises will be better off when they can have some fans in their buildings, and Daly said everything will be done in the name of safety and in conjunction with national and local health authorities.

”We’re going to see what the circumstances are like and do the best we can,” he said. ”We certainly want to maximize efforts to create circumstances where fans can attend our games and we can wait a certain amount of time to try to accommodate that. But at the end of the day, we also want to play a season, so we’re going to see what circumstance are like and make decisions when we need to make decisions.

NHL schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Final

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The Stanley Cup Playoffs continue on Saturday, Sept. 19 in the hub city of Edmonton. Now that we are through the conference finals, the full 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule has been announced.  

The top four teams during the regular season in both conferences played a three-game round robin for seeding in the First Round. The eight winners of the best-of-5 Qualifying Round advanced to the First Round.  

Rogers Place in Edmonton will host 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final.  

Here is the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (DAL leads 1-0)

Game 1: Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

CONFERENCE FINAL RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Lightning beat Islanders (4-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Stars beat Golden Knights (4-1)

***

SECOND ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Lightning beat Bruins (4-1)
Islanders beat Flyers (4-3)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Canucks (4-3)
Stars beat Avalanche (4-3)

***

NHL QUALIFYING ROUND / ROUND-ROBIN RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Philadelphia Flyers (3-0-0, 6 points)
Tampa Bay Lightning (2-1-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (1-1-1, 3 points)
Boston Bruins (0-3-0, 0 points)

Canadiens beat Penguins (3-1)
Hurricanes beat Rangers (3-0)
Islanders beat Panthers (3-1)
Blue Jackets beat Maple Leafs (3-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Vegas Golden Knights (3-0-0, 6 points)
Colorado Avalanche (2-1-0, 4 points)
Dallas Stars (1-2-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-1, 1 point)

Blackhawks beat Oilers (3-1)
Coyotes beat Predators (3-1)
Canucks beat Wild (3-1)
Flames beat Jets (3-1)

***

FIRST ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Flyers beat Canadiens (4-2)
Lightning beat Blue Jackets (4-1)
Islanders beat Capitals (4-1)
Bruins beat Hurricanes (4-1)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Blackhawks (4-1)
Avalanche beat Coyotes (4-1)
Stars beat Flames (4-2)
Canucks beat Blues (4-2)

Anton Khudobin continues to be ‘a rock’ in goal for Stars

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Anton Khudobin preferred the postgame spotlight to be on the Stars’ effort in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, not him. But when you watched how the Dallas goaltender kept denying the Lightning’s never-ending scoring chances, it’d be hard to talk about much else.

The Stars are three wins away from their first Cup title since 2000 in large part because of the 34-year-old Russian’s play. As Ben Bishop deals with an injury, Khudobin has been the No. 1 star more often than not most nights. He stopped 35 of 36 Tampa shots during their 4-1 win Saturday night to continue his Conn Smythe Trophy worthy play since the Western Conference Final.

Via Natural Stat Trick, at even strength in his last six starts he has a .956 save percentage and stopped 130 of 136 shots faced. 

[Stars stifle Lightning in Game 1]

Keeping their goaltender busy has ended with good results for the Stars. Game 1 was the fourth straight game Khudobin made at least 30 saves and the team has won nine in a row when he’s turned aside that many shots. 

As the Lightning pressed and kept coming in waves, Khudobin was a calming presence amid all the chaos in the Stars’ zone. He even got to flash a little glove.

“His play’s been speaking for itself,” said Jamie Oleksiak, who scored Dallas’ second goal. “It looks like whenever he’s out there, he’s just having fun. I think we’re feeding off that energy. He’s been great. I can’t say enough about him.”

The Stars needed their goaltender big time in the second and third periods. Tampa outshot Dallas 23-7 at 5-on-5 over the final 40 minutes, including 14-1 in the third. Each time the Lightning tried to make a breakthrough, Khudobin was there to deny a chance.

“When he’s on, which he was today, he’s reading the play. He’s getting there, anticipating the shot,” said Stars head coach Rick Bowness. “He’s not late, he’s not chasing the game around, he’s focused on where it’s coming from and he’s meeting the puck. His positional play has been great. His reads have been great, but more importantly, he’s a competitive guy, and he’ll do whatever he can to stop the puck. That’s why he’s so effective.”

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Dallas did their part to try and help Tampa get back into the game with three third-period power plays. But the Lightning could only muster four shots with the man advantage, all of which were stopped by Khudobin.

The Stars have received contributions from their depth players all playoffs. That was on display in Game 1 with Joel Hanley scoring his first NHL goal, and Oleksiak and Joel Kiviranta adding to their postseason totals. They’re thriving with the “next man up” mentality, and Khudobin stepping in to the No. 1 spotlight in net is further evidence of that.

“He’s been a rock for us all playoffs, it was no different tonight,” said Stars forward Blake Comeau. “We got into penalty trouble there in the third and he was there to bail us out, and that’s been the storyline this playoffs. Every time we’ve needed a big save, he’s been there for us. 

“We have a lot of confidence in him. He’s playing great for us right now, and we’re going to need him to continue that moving forward.”

Game 2 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final is Monday, Sept. 21 at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN (livestream)

MORE: 3 Takeaways from Lightning-Stars Game 1

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

3 Takeaways: Stars beat Lightning in 2020 Stanley Cup Final Game 1

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For the Dallas Stars, their 4-1 victory against the Lightning in Game 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final was as close to “as you draw it up” as it gets. Starting in Game 2 on Monday (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN: livestream), we’ll find out if this remains storybook for the Stars, or if the Lightning answer with some twists of their own.

While we wait, let’s ponder three takeaways from the Stars winning Game 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final against the Lightning by a score of 4-1.

1. Anton Khudobin: still red-hot

Through the first 40 minutes, it looked like the Stars had a good handle on the Lightning. Anton Khudobin only faced four shots on goal during the first period, and even as business picked up during the second, there weren’t a ton of Grade-A chances. Via Natural Stat Trick, the Stars managed an 8-3 edge in high-danger chances through the first two periods.

But the final 20 minutes reminded us of what a great story Anton Khudobin has been, and it’s a good clip show for Khudobin’s agent to trot out during the free agent frenzy.

The Lightning fired more shots on goal during the third period (22) than the Stars managed all game long (20). That final frame also represented the only period when the Lightning received power-play opportunities, but they loaded up with three.

Despite a stretch of utter domination, Jason Dickinson‘s empty-netter ranked as the only goal of the third. It’s hard to argue that the Lightning really “beat” Khudobin on their lone goal of Game 1, either, so consider the veteran red-hot. Still.

2. Stars defenders keep scoring — and not just the obvious ones

Look, it’s not a surprise to see Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg, and even Esa Lindell collect an assist, as they all did in Game 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. (Granted, it’s especially promising for Heiskanen, who was limited to a single assist and zero goals in five games against the Golden Knights.)

Big D getting big contributions from defensemen extends beyond the big obvious names to include an actually very big defenseman in Jamie Oleksiak. As surprising as it is pretty much every time Oleksiak scores, it’s becoming a more common occurrence during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He hit his fifth goal of this run, and did it with style.

There’s a reason why it’s surprising, though.

Fellow defenseman Joel Hanley stood out as the biggest surprise, though, as the first goal of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final also was the first goal Hanley scored at the NHL level — regular season or playoffs.

Thanks to those two goals from Game 1, the Stars have now received an impressive 15 goals from defensemen.

3. Could the Lightning have a Plan B line if their top guys are out of gas?

When you’ve logged the miles and accrued bumps and bruises like Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman have during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, you might start to run on fumes. It was a tough Game 1 for Point (zero points or SOG, -3 rating) and Kucherov (zero points, -2 rating, five SOG; might have been partially responsible for the Oleksiak goal). Considering that both have missed time during this postseason, and that Hedman faced some of his own issues, the Lightning might need some other heroes.

Jon Cooper might even want to do the uncomfortable and give Point a breather.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

But, for as frustrating as Game 1 must have been — especially during the third period — the Lightning may have a trio that can ease some of the burden for the likes of Kucherov and Point.

By the eye test, it looked like Tyler Johnson was finding some space with his skating, while Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn were doing their thing. Take a gander at some of their forward line stats from Game 1, via Natural Stat Trick:

3 Three Takeaways 2020 Stanley Cup Final other Lightning line Stars
via Natural Stat Trick

Yes, it’s true that the line didn’t score a goal. You can also see that other groupings enjoyed useful results, including vaunted support players such as Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow.

But Cooper really might want to ponder leaning on Killorn – Cirelli – Johnson if they create the sort of looks that they did in Game 1. That trio manufactured three high-danger chances for, and none against, among other promising signs.

After being passed by over the years (including seeing his already falling ice time drop to an average of just 14:33 TOI per game this season), it would be quite the story if Tyler Johnson came up big for the Lightning during the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. Especially if the salary cap forces Johnson out after a potential last hurrah.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (DAL leads 1-0)

Game 1: Stars 4, Lightning 1. (recap)
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.