Who will be the biggest X-factors in the series for each team?
James O’Brien, NHL writer: Brayden Point and Joe Pavelski. For real, if Point’s functional — even if it means skipping a Stanley Cup Final game, or perhaps two — then that’s series-shifting stuff.
It’s been a delight to see Pavelski thrive after struggling so much during the regular season. That said, Pavelski slogged through a sluggish series against Vegas. It’s one thing to finish with a goal and an assist, but I’m a touch concerned that he wasn’t firing the puck much; the veteran finished with just three SOG in those five games after having no fewer than two and as many as six in each contest vs. Colorado. Naturally, pace of play matters, but I’d wager the Stars will need offense beyond the Jamie Benn
– Tyler Seguin
– Alexander Radulov
combo. Since Bowness seems reluctant to unleash Denis Gurianov
and Roope Hintz
, then it falls on players like Pavelski to pitch in.
Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Blake Coleman and Anton Khudobin. I kind of want to say the entire Tampa third line, but if I have to narrow it down to one then I am going to pick Coleman. He has been such a big pickup, because he not only brings a shutdown defense element to their third line, but he can also chip in some offense and help give them another line that can beat you. They paid a steep price at the trade deadline to get Coleman and Goodrow (two first-round picks!) but it has proven to be worth it. This line has not only been their second best line in the playoffs, they are going to have it next year as well for an incredible price against the salary cap.
For the Stars, it kind of has to be Khudobin, doesn’t it? I expect that the Stars are probably going to give up a lot of shots, a decent number of scoring chances, and at times be on the defense against an incredibly deep Lightning team. The Stars, to their credit, have already gotten through two similarly built teams in Colorado and Vegas, and in the latter case it was largely due to Khudobin’s play. Tampa is better than each of those two teams, so it stands to reason that he is going to get tested again. If he plays well, the Stars are going to have a real shot. If he does not, well, that is a great Tampa team that can run away with it if it gets rolling. That potential swing in results based on the play of one player is pretty much the definition of an X-factor I would say.
Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Brayden Point and Anton Khudobin. Point seems to be laboring over the last couple of games and missed two of the Lightning’s last four games with his undisclosed injury. If healthy, he and Nikita Kucherov are far better than any Dallas twosome up front.
Khudobin is going through a stretch of outstanding playing time that he has never done before in the NHL. He has carried the Stars on his back throughout the post season and if the Stars get a similar performance in the Stanley Cup Final, then Dallas has a chance to lift the Cup and bring it back to Texas.
Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Victor Hedman and Anton Khudobin. The Norris Trophy finalist has shown his offensive flair this postseason (nine goals, 15 points) and his value on the blue line this postseason. When he’s on the ice, the Lightning have outscored opponents 22-4 and own nearly 60% of the shot share at even strength. He’s the leader of the NHL’s best defense in these playoffs and will find a way to neutralize the Stars’ biggest weapons more often than not this series.
Khudobin’s play is the main reason why the Stars are four wins away from a title. Since taking over for Ben Bishop, “Dobby” has a .929 even strength save percentage and a .872 high-danger save percentage, which tops Vasilevskiy’s .836. Dallas needed him to be their best player in the conference final and he’ll need to continue that elite form.
Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Steven Stamkos and Tyler Seguin. Tampa’s captain has been unfit to play this entire postseason, but we’re starting to see him more and more. He has been practicing in recent days, and he joined the team on the ice for the picture with the Prince of Wales Trophy. His ear-to-ear grin was such a welcome sight, and one can only imagine how amped up he would be to make his return in the Cup Final – especially given how much he struggled against Chicago in 2015 (0 goals, 1 assist in 6 games). An effective Stamkos could turn the Lightning into a significant favorite in this series.
When a proven scorer is on a 2-goals-in-20-games slump, that can either be cause for concern, or optimism. The Lightning will be Dallas’ toughest test, so if Seguin stays quiet, then the Stars could have a hard time outscoring the Bolts. Then again, given the Stars made it to this point without much production from Seguin, perhaps he’ll bring a welcome boost and make his team an even tougher out.
What is the biggest storyline for you entering this series?
James O’Brien, NHL writer: Perhaps I’m projecting here (let’s ruminate on a 12-month 2019-20 season, everyone), but fatigue. The hockey’s been so good for much of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs that we feel comfortable burying a player or team because of a bad couple of weeks. That would already be bad during normal circumstances — fear the playoff overreaction — yet it’s especially dangerous now. Sure, it’s understandable that the NHL wants to hand out the Stanley Cup as soon as possible (picture Gary Bettman walking away from an explosion like in an action movie). But you can really see the wear and tear building up. How much gas does Tampa Bay have left in the tank? Stars fans won’t love hearing about that if Dallas runs over the Lightning, yet it’s the elephant in the room, with bags under its eyes.
Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Honestly it has to just be the very fact that the Stars are even here. This team started the season 1-7 and looked awful while doing so, they went through a surprising mid-season coaching change, and then they beat two of the biggest favorites in the Western Conference while getting badly outshot and even outscored throughout the playoffs. As if that is not enough, they are doing it on the strength of an outstanding goaltending performance, but that performance is not coming from the goalie you would have expected it to come from at the start of the season (Ben Bishop). Everything about this team and its success is mesmerizing.
Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: The biggest story line has to be who is healthy and who is not. The NHL playoffs usually are at its best in the early rounds, while the Stanley Cup Final is usually a survival of the fittest. It always comes out after a team is eliminated that a bunch of players require surgery and it would not surprise me if the same thing happens in two weeks. There are definitely plenty of injuries that are undisclosed at this time(from blocking shots to absorbing big hits) with the guys just playing through them.
Sean Leahy, NHL writer: How much more of an impact can Tampa’s third line make? Barclay Goodrow, Yanni Gourde, and Blake Coleman have been a trio that’s turned into one of the best lines this postseason. We know what Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point can do, but that shutdown line has been incredibly effective. Via Natural Stat Trick, the line has a 57 expected goals rate and have outscored opponents 10-5 at even strength when they’re on the ice. They face a new challenge if they get matched up against Jamie Benn, who’s been in “beast mode” this summer.
Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Steven Stamkos and Tyler Seguin. Can Anton Khudobin outplay Andrei Vasilevskiy? Vasilevskiy is the best goalie on the planet, and his play this postseason (14-5 record, 1.82 GAA, .931 SV%) gives Tampa the edge in goal … at least on paper. But Khudobin stole Dallas’ Conference Final series against Vegas, and he is having the performance of a lifetime in these playoffs. With Ben Bishop still unfit to play for the Stars, it will be up to Khudobin to continue his magical run and keep the high-flying Lightning at bay.
2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars
Game 1: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBC
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*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
Watch the Lightning-Stars stream on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.