NBC’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Saturday’s Stanley Cup Final matchup between the Lightning and Stars. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Watch the Lightning-Stars stream on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
The Lightning have been one of the most successful teams in the NHL in recent years, but have been unable to win the ultimate prize. Over the past six seasons, Tampa has made at least the Conference Final in four of them, with this being their second Stanley Cup Final appearance in that span. On each previous occasion, the Bolts lost to the eventual champions.
Given the manner in which Tampa has lost in prior years, this 2020 squad has been clearing hurdles at every stage. In the First Round, the Lightning avenged last year’s sweep by beating Columbus in five games. In the Second Round, they got past the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins. And in the Conference Final, after multiple years of failing to close out East Final opponents, the Lightning outlasted the Islanders with a gritty series win.
Rick Bowness was named interim head coach on Dec. 10 after Dallas relieved Jim Montgomery of his duties for “unprofessional conduct.” Bowness, 65, was drafted by the Atlanta Flames in 1975 and has played or coached in the NHL almost every year since – including a stint working for Jon Cooper in Tampa. Bowness is the oldest head coach in the NHL, and has never been part of a Cup-winning team.
According to the NHL Coaches Association, this is the first Cup Final in history where the head coach on one team had previously served as the assistant of the other.
WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton WHEN: Saturday, September 19, 7:30 p.m. ET TV: NBC ON THE CALL: Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, Brian Boucher LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Stars stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars
Game 1: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream) 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
Stars give Rick Bowness another chance at Stanley Cup glory
As Ryan Callahan made his way back into the Tampa Bay Lightning locker room after the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, he caught a glimpse inside the Tampa coaches room. There his eyes were drawn to assistant coach Rick Bowness, and it was clear how much the series loss to Chicago was hurting.
Four years earlier, Bowness was an associate coach with Vancouver when they fell in seven games to the Boston in the Cup Final. The image of a crestfallen NHL lifer missing out on another opportunity at a championship is one that has stayed with Callahan.
“I wanted to win it for him because I knew he’s been in the league for so long and how much he wanted it,” said Callahan, who is now an NHL Network analyst.
Callahan’s experience playing for Bowness is similar to that of many others. The coach is genuine person who cares deeply for his players. He always keeps an open line of communication. Criticisms come from a good place.
“You kind of scratch your head and wonder why he wasn’t a head coach in this league,” Callahan said. “You felt like he had so much to give and he was so passionate about the game and about the players.”
It’s been a long journey for the 65-year-old Bowness, and no one has more experience with over 2,500 NHL games coached. It’s been a career of ups and downs. But there’s a large fan club of current and former players who are rooting for him to finally hoist the Cup.
The relationship between Bowness and Stars general manager Jim Nill goes back to the early 1980s. The Winnipeg Jets were vying for a Smythe Division crown and the 29-year-old Bowness was in his first season as an assistant. On the wing, albeit for 20 games in 1984-85, was Nill, then a 26-year-old winger who came over from Boston in a midseason trade.
The two would spend the next few seasons together in the organization before linking up as few years later in Ottawa. Bowness had been hired as the expansion franchise’s first-ever head coach and Nill working as a pro scout.
Bowness would last four seasons as the Senators got off to a rough start, while Nill left for a long run with Red Wings following the 1993-94 season.
Nearly three decades later they would reunite, but under unique circumstances. When Nill fired Montgomery as Stars head coach due to “unprofessional conduct,” he turned to Bowness, who had spent the last two seasons as an assistant.
From playing for him and seeing how players reacted to his approach, Nill knew that given the Stars’ situation Bowness’ personality would be a fit. The match was there, and the comfort level between the players and their new coach was perfect.
“Hey, listen: He’s the main reason I came to Dallas [from Tampa] in the first place two summers ago,” Bowness said of Nill. “His character, his honesty — you know where you stand. He’s an honest, hardworking man committed to winning.”
What’s changed in Bowness 36 years after coaching the Jets? There are a few more grays, sure, but not a whole lot, according to Nill. How he deals with players remains an attribute that’s played a role into his staying power as an NHL coach.
“He’s the same person back then as he is now,” Nill said. “He’s a great person, on and off the ice. It’s all about respect. And with respect sometimes there’s tough conversations. Sometimes you have to have conversations with players and say you’re either not playing good enough or maybe you need more time and need to get send down and play in the minors or you’ve got to get your game better or you’re not going to be in the lineup. Those decisions aren’t easy, but Rick has always been very upfront and truthful about it. That’s what getting him success so far.”
When Bowness took the Ottawa job, the hockey wasn’t great. The expansion Senators won just 39 times in his 235 games in charges. Despite the lack of success, Nill saw the work ethic of a coach who was doing everything he could to improve the franchise’s fortunes.
“That’s not a great situation for a coach,” Nill said. “But he came to work every day, was the same guy every day, tried to make guys better, tried to make the team better, and was about the team first. Sometimes to judge guys in those situations isn’t totally fair.”
If Bowness thought his time in Ottawa was bad, he could not have been prepared for what was to come next.
Finding his niche
Mike Milbury brought Bowness in as an associate coach with the New York Islanders ahead of the 1996-97 season. He only held that title for 45 games before Milbury resigned and Bowness took over head coaching duties.
A struggling team and a continued lack of success after his four seasons in Ottawa brought plenty of frustration. Bowness was unable to turn the Islanders around in his season and a half, no matter how hard he tried. Milbury then decided to take on the head coach role again 63 games into the 1997-98 season.
“When ‘Bones’ would get behind the bench he’d so fired up, he’s screaming and yelling at everything he could,” said Bryan Berard, who played two seasons for Bowness with the Islanders. “Whether it was the refs, whether it was us, whether it was the opposing team, you could just tell he was pumped to be behind the bench.”
Aside from a 20-game stint as interim head coach in Phoenix, Bowness’ resume since the Islanders job has been filled with assistant or associate coaching gigs. From Berard’s experience, that role is where Bowness excels.
“For me, ‘Bones’ kind of found that niche, and I think he liked being an assistant coach because he likes being in the locker room and around the players,” he said.
Dallas is the latest example of a team in need turning to Bowness in the middle of a season.
“The general managers, when they have to fire a head coach, they know that guys like Rick,” Berard added. “They know they’ll play for him. I think this is pretty obvious with the way [Dallas] rallied around him and each other and are having a lot of success.”
As Berard has watched the Stars this postseason, it’s clear to him why there’s been a turnaround. Bowness took over an older team, one that was created to be a contender now. Gone are the days where he’s yelling at everything in sight all the time. Now, he’s letting his players play and it’s working.
“For ‘Bones’ to stick around it just shows that he loves being in the locker room and he’s a true hockey guy,” Berard said.
Getting the chance again
The Stars players were familiar with Bowness when he assumed the interim role. He knew them well and they knew his approach. The relationships may have slightly changed given his new responsibilities, but he was still the same old “Bones.”
“He’s a coach you just want to do everything for, lay your body on the line for,” said Stars captain Jamie Benn. “It’s been a crazy year for all of us, and especially for him. To come in halfway through the year, jump into a head-coaching role, can’t be easy.”
That kind of endorsement reverberates inside a dressing room. The Stars had no choice but to respond when Bowness took over. Given the abrupt change of leadership, they had to rally for one another and rally around the coach.
One of Bowness’ biggest strengths — honed by his many years as an assistant — is communication. He likes to keep the atmosphere positive and light and his players know he’s available to talk any time. It’s a two-way street of of course, and he’s upfront if criticism is warranted. That kind of honesty and openness stays with players and helps them buy into what he wants to do.
The level of respect for Bowness isn’t just contained to the Stars’ dressing room. While colleagues and former players will sing his praises, opponents want to see him finally reach his Cup dreams.
After the Stars eliminated the Avalanche in the Second Round, Bowness met with Nathan MacKinnon in the handshake line. The Hart Trophy finalist had a simple message for his fellow Martimer.
“Go get it. Go get it,” MacKinnon told Bowness. “We’re all cheering for you back home now, eh?”
The Tampa Bay Lightning enter the Stanley Cup Final against the Dallas Stars with several key players dealing with injuries the team somehow was able to withstand during an impressive run to the Eastern Conference championship.
Stamkos, a two-time Richard Trophy winner who’s been chasing a NHL title for 12 seasons, has yet to play this postseason because of a lower-body injury.
He finally got on the ice for Game 6 of the East final, but only to celebrate the Lightning advancing to hockey’s biggest stage for the first time since 2015.
”You need a lot of good players to get to this point. And resiliency,” general manager Julien BriseBois said Friday.
”Once you have a good enough team to get into the playoffs, it’s who’s going to find a way,” BriseBois added. ”At this point you have two teams that have found a way to get to the Final, and one of us is going to find a way to lift the big trophy.”
Stamkos has been skating with teammates, however there’s no definitive timetable for his return.
Game 1 is Saturday night.
”He’s still rehabbing. We haven’t ruled him out,” BriseBois said. ”I don’t expect him in the lineup (Saturday).”
Point was injured during Game 2 of East final against the New York Islanders. He missed Games 3 and 5, while playing at less than 100 percent in Games 4 and 6.
Cirelli, meanwhile, scored the series-clinching goal in overtime Thursday night after earlier appearing to injure his right knee in a second-period collision with Islanders captain Anders Lee.
Cirelli returned in the third period and delivered the winner, as coach Jon Cooper described it, while playing ”basically on one leg.”
”Obviously, I was in a little bit of pain there,” Cirelli said, ”but I was fine and was fortunate enough to finish the game.”
Point shrugged off a question about how he’s feeling.
”I think everyone on both sides has something they’re dealing with,” Point said. ”You don’t get here without getting dinged up a little bit. It’s just about competing.”
BISHOP STILL OUT
Injured Stars goaltender Ben Bishop probably isn’t getting the net back even if he’s healthy given the way Anton Khudobin is playing, and the team still doesn’t have an update on him. Bishop skated Thursday, coach Rick Bowness said, and is still rehabbing.
”Ben’s been a big part of our success since he’s come here and unfortunately he’s injured,” general manager Jim Nill said. ”We’re going to take that day by day. But he’s a big part, he’s been in the dressing room with the guys, he’s cheering them on, he’s working hard in practice and that’s where we’re at right now.”
Beyond Bowness facing a team he was an assistant for under Jon Cooper for five years, there are plenty of connections between Dallas and Tampa Bay.
Bishop was the starter for the Lightning in 2015 when they went to the Stanley Cup Final and lost to Chicago and was replaced in net by Andrei Vasilevskiy when he got injured. Tampa Bay’s Barclay Goodrow and Dallas’ Joe Pavelski also played together in San Jose and went to the 2016 final. When Pavelski was a free agent in the summer of 2019, the Lightning and Stars were among his final choices, and now he’s facing the team he didn’t pick in another chance to win it all.
”It was one of those moments where if I was going to be leaving San Jose, I wanted to go to a place I was going to have a good chance to win,” Pavelski said. ”One of the things I liked, for me, was just I like the goalies here, I like the structure defensively. … There’s also some high-end talent on this team, as well.”
NICE TO BE BACK
Pavelski and Corey Perry both spent well more than a decade with their original NHL teams, facing each other constantly as division rivals.
Perry’s NHL debut came with the Anaheim Ducks in 2005-06, a year before they won the Stanley Cup. That championship season for Perry came the same year Pavelski was a rookie with the San Jose Sharks.
Both remained with those West Coast teams until last summer, when both signed with the Dallas Stars in free agency. They sat at a podium together Friday, the day before getting to play in another Stanley Cup Final.
”It’s been awesome,” Pavelski said. ”We competed against each other for a long time.”
The Sharks lost in the Stanley Cup Final four years ago, Pavelski’s first season as their captain. This is also Perry’s first time back to a final.
”There’s lots of battles that we’ve gone through,” Perry said. ”There’s been a lot of hockey played between us, and it’s nice to be sitting here beside him right now doing this.”
One other team Pavelski considered last summer was Tampa Bay – the team the Stars are facing now.
”For me, it was one of those moments where if I was going to be leaving San Jose, I wanted to go to a place that was going to have a good chance to win,” he said. ”I identified a few places. There were a few places that had interest, and then we went from there.”
Stanley Cup: Stars and Lightning turn defense into offense
This was already going to be an unusual Stanley Cup, and it now has a matchup for all of those who like their games to be a bit defensive.
The Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning, two of the league’s southernmost teams playing for the title in a bubble in the NHL’s northernmost arena in Edmonton, have defensemen who provide plenty of points.
Is that defensive offense or offensive defense? Either way, they’ve done that and also been pretty good at what blueline players are primarily expected to do in shutting down the opponent.
”In today’s NHL you need that for your team to be successful,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said Friday. ”You need that second wave of players joining the rush. … It’s something that we stress.”
Game 1 of the best-of-seven Stanley Cup is Saturday night, two days after Tampa Bay won the Eastern Conference in Game 6 against the New York Islanders. The Stars eliminated Western Conference top seed Vegas in Game 5 on Monday.
Tampa Bay veteran Victor Hedman, a fourth-time finalist for the Norris Trophy that goes to the league’s best all-around defenseman, is scoring postseason goals at a record pace. The Stars have Miro Heiskanen, who at barely 21 is already the highest-scoring defenseman ever in a postseason for his franchise.
”We’re not surprised,” Stars defenseman John Klingberg said. ”Let Miro be Miro, and he’s going to take over games.”
Only Lightning forwards Nikita Kucherov (26 points) and Brayden Point (25 points), and Colorado center Nathan McKinnon (25 points in 15 games), have more postseason points than the 22 (five goals, 17 assists) by Heiskanen, the third overall pick in the 2017 draft.
Heiskanen and Klingberg (three goals, 13 assists), who has two game-winning goals, have outpointed some standout teammates: Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, who are primarily on the top line with captain Jamie Benn, and playoff veteran Joe Pavelski, who is in his first season with Dallas.
”It’s way easier to play with with five guys on the ice than three or two,” said Heiskanen, whose birthday was during the NHL’s 4 1/2-month pause because of the pandemic. ”So it’s great to have the good D core, and let’s try to use it as much as we can, and just keep going there.”
Dallas defensemen have combined for 53 points (13 goals, 40 assists), the most during a postseason in history of the franchise in its first Stanley Cup Final since 2000. The previous mark was 47 (nine goals, 38 assists) in 1981 when the Minnesota North Stars lost in the final.
”Modern hockey, you create a lot of offense from the back end as well and you want to be able to have your Ds join the rush,” Klingberg said.
Tampa Bay defensemen have 46 points, and helped the Lighting go 10-2 in one-goal games this postseason. Since falling behind 1-0 in Game 4 against New York, they have allowed only three goals in more than 195 minutes.
”They have some big D, guys that can move and score,” Pavelski said. ”You see what Hedman’s doing right now.”
The Stars are 1-0 in one-goal games, and held Vegas to two goals or fewer in each of their wins in the West final. They scored five goals in each of their four wins against Colorado.
Hedman, the 6-foot-6 Swede who was the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, had the only goal in regulation for the Lightning in their East-clinching 2-1 victory over the Islanders.
It was Hedman’s sixth goal in eight games and part of his NHL-best plus-19 rating since the season resumed. His nine goals are the most ever in a postseason for a Tampa Bay defenseman, the most in the NHL since Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers had 11 in 1994 and only three shy of the league record 12 by Edmonton’s Paul Coffey in 1985.
”I think any time he gets the puck, in his mind, he’s shooting it because he knows the kind of run that he’s on,” said fellow defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. ”Whenever I get the puck at the blue line, I’m trying to find him as often as possible. … He’s doing it all right now.”
The Stars signed 14-year veteran Andrej Sekera as a free agent last summer, and he is finally in his first Stanley Cup Final with his fifth team. Their other defensemen who have played 20 games this postseason – Heiskanen, Klingberg, 2014 first-rounder Jamie Oleksiak and Esa Lindell – were all drafted by the Stars.
Shattenkirk, a free agency addition last offseason who is a plus-11 this postseason, and McDonagh are among four Lightning defensemen with at least 10 seasons of NHL experience now in their first Stanley Cup Final. The others are Zach Bogosian, the 12-year veteran who became available in February when Buffalo terminated his contract, and Luke Schenn.
”Everyone is obviously very hungry to go all of the way,” said Hedman, part of Tampa Bay’s loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final five years ago. ”They’ve been in the league for a long time, and they haven’t been in this situation before. They’re super excited and played a huge part in why we’re here.”