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McLellan’s Challenge: Don’t overcoach North America’s ‘wild horses’

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PITTSBURGH — The NHL has become such a structured and defense-first league over the past two decades that pretty much every team and player is designed to play the exact same way.

Just about every team wants their star players to play a safe, responsible 200-foot game that is almost free of any and all risk. Anytime a team or player drifts away from that mold — even if it’s just a little bit — it really stands out and there are always questions about whether or not they can succeed with that style.

You saw it a lot last season when talking about the Dallas Stars and their high-flying offense. You saw it a few years ago when the Washington Capitals shifted from an all offense-no defense approach to a no-offense-all defense team and set the franchise back several years. You hear about it every time Erik Karlsson touches the puck.

On the international stage, we might hear similar questions about Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

It’s a collection of the best young (age 23 and younger) talent from the United States and Canada in the league, and after watching their three pre-tournament games over the past week it is pretty clear that they are going to be one of the must-see teams over the next two weeks.

They are fast, skilled, and so far have played a style that has opened the game up to odd-man rushes, scoring chances, and wide open back-and-forth play.

That style of play is obviously exciting and can create a lot of goals, especially when you are dealing with a team that has the type of talent Team North America has.

The downside to that style of play is if a team is not careful it can border on reckless and create opportunities going back the other way. There are also questions as to how they will stack up against bigger and stronger teams like the United States and Canada, while Vladimir Sobotka of the Czech Republic said on Thursday that if you finish your checks against them they might be “afraid to play with the puck.”

The challenge for coach Todd McLellan is going to be allowing them to play to their strength, while also trying to control them so the game doesn’t get out of hand due to reckless and careless play with (and without) the puck.

Before Wednesday’s World Cup pre-tournament game against the Czech Republic, a 3-2 loss, McLellan compared his team to a group of wild horses.

“It’s like a group of wild horses you have to corral,” McLellan said. “You get two of them in there, but the gate is still open and four of them take off and leave you. So you’ve got to go get those four, and the other two take off.”

There was a little bit of taking place during the game on Wednesday, especially early on with some breakdowns that resulted in Czech Republic scoring chances that forced goalie Matt Murray to keep his team in the game.

McLellan pointed out that they made a couple of critical mistakes that ended up in their net because they were “vacating a dangerous area before we have the puck.” They also have a tendency to overpass the puck and try to do a little too much playmaking instead of just ripping shots at the net when they have the opportunity.

Obviously a team doesn’t want to find itself in a situation where it completely abandons all defensive responsibility, or gets caught making an extra pass that is unnecessary and results in a turnover.

But too often in the NHL there is a seemingly constant desire from a coaching standpoint to go too far in the opposite direction.

McLellan seems to recognize that and doesn’t want to completely eliminate their skill and ask them to be something they are not.

“We don’t want to over-coach this group,” McLellan said on Wednesday. “We don’t want to slow them down, we want them to read and react.”

The talent on this team does not lend itself to playing a gritty, NHL style game. If they try to play that type of game, especially against Canada or the United States, they will probably lose.

They are loaded up front and might be the fastest team in the tournament. Their strength is playing with the puck and using their speed — especially at forward — to their advantage.

But they also can’t be reckless with it because if they get caught flying out of the zone too fast (as they did at times on Wednesday) or get caught in transition trying to make an extra play (as they did in each of their past two games) the more talented teams in the tournament are going to capitalize and make them pay.

There has to be a middle ground between all-out attack and just sitting back and removing all risk.

Finding that middle ground is going to be their biggest challenge and what determines how far they are able to go in this tournament.

Lightning-Stars stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final

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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.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

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

*if necessary

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

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

*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)

Lightning vs. Stars: 2020 Stanley Cup Final preview

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There is a strong argument to be made that the Tampa Bay Lightning have been the NHL’s best team for six years now.

Since the start of the 2014-15 season they have more regular season and playoff wins than any team in the league, scored more goals scored than any team in the league, have reached the Conference Finals four times, and are now in their second Stanley Cup Final since then.

The only thing they are missing to help cement their status as the league’s most dominant team? Actually winning the Stanley Cup with this core and this roster.

They have a chance to accomplish that starting on Saturday night when they play the Dallas Stars in Game 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC; livestream).

Given all of their success in recent years it is probably not a huge surprise to see them on this stage.

The Stars, though? They are a bit more unexpected, even though they were a Game 7 double overtime loss away from reaching the Western Conference Final a year ago. They started the season with a 1-7-1 record, went through an in-season coaching change, struggled to score goals, and were always overshadowed in the Western Conference by the likes of St. Louis, Colorado, and Vegas. Then they went and beat two of those three in the playoffs and punched their ticket to their first Stanley Cup Final in 20 years.

How do the two teams compare?

Let us take a look.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

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

*if necessary

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Offense

These two teams could not be more different in terms of playing style and offensive potential.

While the Stars briefly found an offensive surge in the First and Second Rounds against Calgary and Colorado, it is still a team that relies on defense and goaltending to win games. They showed they are capable of adapting and filling the net more often to win games, but that is not where their strength is. It’s not that they don’t have talent on the roster (they do), it’s just that they don’t really have many game-breakers at forward.

This is a team that has not ranked higher than 17th in goals scored since the 2015-16 season, while they have finished 28th and 29th the past two seasons.

Tampa Bay, meanwhile, is absolutely loaded up front, even if Steven Stamkos is not available.

Nikita Kucherov is as good as it gets offensively, while Brayden Point has emerged as a top-line center. Add in complementary pieces like Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Yanni Gourde, and the trade deadline acquisitions of Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow and there are not really many weaknesses up front.

The Lightning have been the top goal-scoring team in the league in four of the past six seasons, including each of the past three seasons.

Advantage: Lightning

Defense

Their star power up front really overshadows the fact that the Lightning also have an outstanding blue line. Victor Hedman is a beast and arguably the most impactful player on the roster, while Mikhail Sergachev, Ryan McDonagh, and Kevin Shattenkirk round out an extremely formidable top-four on defense.

The Lightning are not only one of the highest scoring teams in the league, they are also one of the best defensive teams.

Dallas, on the other hand, has quite literally been the toughest teams to score against for two years now.

Since the start of the 2018-19 season the Stars are allowing just 2.48 goals per game, which is the absolute lowest mark in the entire NHL, just narrowly ahead of the Boston Bruins (2.49) and New York Islanders (2.54). Those are the only three teams in the league that have allowed fewer than 2.65 goals per game over that stretch.

Is it a lot of that due to what has been an outstanding goalie duo? You bet it has been. But the fact the Stars also have two elite defenseman in Klingberg and Heiskanen plays a significant role in that as well.

Advantage: Stars

Goaltending

Andrei Vasilevskiiy has been a Vezina Trophy finalist three years in a row now and is clearly one of the league’s elite goalies.

Adding that to a team that has the best offense in the NHL and a stellar defense is almost unfair. But here we are.

On the Dallas side, Anton Khudobin has become one of the biggest stories of the playoffs for the way he stood on his head against the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Final. That performance has put him in the Conn Smythe discussion, and a repeat of that against Tampa Bay in the Final might even make him a favorite.

The duo of Khudobin and Ben Bishop has been a massive part of the Stars’ goal prevention the past two years as they have formed one of the best tandems in the league. But Bishop’s health and status for the Stanley Cup Final is a bit of a mystery at this point, so the Lightning should still have the edge here.

Advantage: Lightning

Special Teams

There is actually not a lot separating these two units. The Lightning had the superior power play unit during the regular season, but Dallas still had a solid unit and it has excelled so far in the playoffs. That power play success was a big part of their goal-scoring surge earlier this postseason.

The two penalty killing units have been virtually identical in terms of their success rate during the regular season and playoffs, and that really should not be a huge surprise. Both teams have excellent defenses, good defensive forwards, and great goaltending. That is a pretty good combination to have.

Advantage: Push

Prediction

Lightning in six: I am not going to dismiss the Stars in this series. They have a goalie that is playing out of his mind, two No. 1 defensemen, a great top line, and improved forward depth from what we saw with them a year ago. They also just beat two of the best teams in the NHL (Colorado and Vegas) in back-to-back series by winning eight out of 12 games against them. They could absolutely do it again here. But Tampa Bay is going to be the best team they have faced and they have impact players at every level of the roster. They have been so close for so many years, this is going to be the year they win it all. Tampa Bay Lightning in six games is the pick here.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Lightning vs. Stars: PHT’s Stanley Cup Final predictions

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It’s finally here! We’ve spent the last 49 days since the Qualifying Round began watching the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs and we’ve now arrived at the Cup Final. It’s the Tampa Bay Lightning vs. the Dallas Stars.

Four of us had the Lightning in the Cup Final, three of which have them winning. The Avalanche and the Golden Knights were a popular pick, but none of us had the Stars here. Heck, only Jake had Dallas beating the Flames in the First Round. But Rick Bowness’ team has had quite the run through three rounds and are now four wins away from their first title since 2000. Will they do it? Or will Jon Cooper and Tampa win their first championship since 2004?

Give us your Stanley Cup predictions in the comments. Here are ours:

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Lightning in 7 (Conn Smythe: Brayden Point). Much like Brayden Point’s body, my plan to stick with my preseason picks as far as they’ll go feels pretty battered and bruised right now. Then again, it was still easier — and a more interesting thought experiment — to stick with that through thick and thin than, say, actually having to choose between the Bolts or the Bruins. I’m extremely uncomfortable with this because a) the Stars are far more rested, b) they’re quite good, and c) Point is far from 100%, but the Lightning seem willing to push through everything to finally win a Stamkos-Kucherov-era Stanley Cup. Maybe they can just have big ice packs for seats during the team plane ride out of Edmonton? (Could keep the adult beverages cold.)

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Lightning in 7 (Conn Smythe: Andrei Vasilevskiy). When Tampa got embarrassed last postseason, GM Julien BriseBois got aggressive and improved his roster over the following nine months. In came Pat Maroon, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Zach Bogosian. They weren’t eyebrow-raising moves, but additions that solidified areas that needed a boost. Each of those players has played a vital role in this run to the Cup Final and Jon Cooper is getting Conn Smythe worthy performances from Brayden Point and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Those are all huge with Steven Stamkos remaining out of the lineup. The question is which Stars team will we see? The high-scoring one earlier in the postseason or the shutdown dynamos we’ve seen recently? Solving Anton Khudobin will be the first thing for Tampa to handle and, unlike what we saw from Vegas, finishing their chances will be important.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Adam Gretz, NHL writerLightning in 6 (Conn Smythe: Brayden Point). I just think this is their year. The Capitals finally broke through and got their championship two years ago, the Blues did it last year, and the Lightning are going to do it this year. They have made it this far and been this dominant without their captain and one of their best players playing a single game in the playoffs, and that is just remarkable to me. This team is so deep, so talented, and has so many different people that can beat you that I just do not know if the Stars can match that. The Stars have absolutely earned their spot here, and I do not think this is going to be a lopsided series by any means, but I just think Tampa Bay has too much.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Lightning in 7. (Conn Smythe: Andrei Vasilevskiy). I have picked against Dallas in the three previous rounds, and while I’m going against them once again, I think that it will be a close series with Game 7 possibly going into overtime. Tampa Bay is a stronger team all-around, even with Steven Stamkos on the sidelines. Victor Hedman has been outstanding in the playoffs while Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat have been a much better first line than whatever the Stars can throw at them. Anton Khudobin has stood on his head to get the Stars to this point and Dallas has the best young defenseman in the game in Miro Heiskanen. Dallas needs Tyler Seguin to start scoring if they are to send the Stanley Cup Final to its limit. It should be a great series as the Islanders really wore down the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final. It should be a doozy of a Stanley Cup!

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Lightning in 6 (Conn Smythe: Andrei Vasilevskiy). When we published our Stanley Cup picks last month at the start of the 16-team playoff tournament, I had the Lightning as my champion in 6 games with Andrei Vasilevskiy as my Conn Smythe winner. While I got the West champion wrong (Vegas), I’m sticking with my original choice for Cup champ and playoff MVP. Tampa has cleared hurdle after hurdle in these playoffs, first by exorcising their Blue Jackets demons, then by toppling the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins, and most recently by securing their spot in the final with a gritty win over the pesky Islanders. This Lightning group feels determined and ready to finally break through. And it all starts with Vasilevskiy, who has played every minute of every game this postseason.

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

*if necessary

Watch the Lightning-Stars stream on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.