Well-rested teams have big advantage in NHL playoffs

Rest is beating rust so far in the NHL playoffs.

The teams that have two or more days of time off than their opponent are 5-1 in series openers. The well-rested Tampa Bay Lightning were the latest to take advantage of that, crushing the New York Islanders 8-2 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final and in the process taught an important lesson those teams and those in the West should try to head with the Stanley Cup final coming next.

While the Lightning had a week off after closing out Boston in five games, the Islanders let their 3-1 series lead against Philadelphia slip away before winning in seven. They won Game 7 on Saturday night, flew from Toronto to Edmonton on Sunday and were chasing the play from the start Monday night.

”They got off to a big start, big lead and we were never really able to recover,” said New York forward Matt Martin, who added it’s not the time to make excuses. ”This is playoff hockey. We obviously had our opportunities to end our series against Philly sooner. We didn’t.”

The Islanders only had themselves to blame for missing those opportunities to get extra rest. Each of the Western Conference finalists, the Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights, can feel the same way after going up 3-1 last round and needing a Game 7 to advance.

Dallas and Vegas each played Friday, so neither team technically got more rest. But the Golden Knights got no favors from the schedule with Games 6 and 7 against Vancouver on back-to-back nights and only one day off before facing the Stars.

”We did play back to back on Thursday and Friday night and it was three in four and yes they played a Game 7, too, but they didn’t have a back-to-back situation and sometimes that takes a little bit out of you and it took us a little longer to get going,” coach Peter DeBoer said. ”But I know our guys would never use that as an excuse and I’m not going to, either. I think it might have been an excuse for the first 10 minutes of the game, but we should’ve worked into our game quicker than that.”

Sometimes a bad start can be enough to affect the result of a game or a series. Three of the previous five more rested teams went on to win the series.

Trying to avoid being on the wrong end of that trend, the Islanders didn’t practice Tuesday, and 2018 Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz left it up to his players to recharge. A few worked on their sticks, some played hallway soccer and others hit the gym for a workout while focused entirely on trying to come out better in Game 2.

”You don’t want to be just sulking on a loss that happened (the previous) night in a tough situation for us coming off a lot of travel,” leading scorer Mathew Barzal said. ”Just show up to the rink, have a smile on your face and just be energetic.”

Another slow start undermines Stars in loss to Lightning

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EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — Another slow start doomed the Dallas Stars.

Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final slipped away from the Western Conference champions in a hurry Wednesday night, with a suddenly vulnerable Anton Khudobin allowing two early goals and the Tampa Bay Lightning once again showing how difficult it is play catchup against them in a 5-2 victory.

Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos scored in the first seven minutes for Tampa Bay, which was just was getting started. A trio of goals in the second period built the lead to 5-1, ending an ugly night for Khudobin.

”They made two good shots early,” Stars captain Jamie Benn said. ”They capitalized on their chances and we didn’t.”

The Stars also started slowly in Game 2, yielding three first-period goals – two of them on the power play – on the way to a 3-2 loss.

Now, they’re facing a 2-1 deficit in the best-of-seven series. Game 4 is Friday night.

”We’ve got to regroup,” said Stars forward Jason Dickinson, who had a short-handed goal in the opening period.

”It’s 2-1. They’re up one,” defenseman John Klingberg said. ”We’re going to even the series on Friday.”

While Khudobin is one of the biggest reasons Dallas is back in the Final for the first time in 20 years, he hasn’t been at this best since winning Game 1.

He stopped just 24 of 29 shots in two periods Wednesday night. Over the last two games, he’s yielded eight goals in 60 shots.

With the Stars trailing by four goals and the teams set to play the next two games of the series on consecutive nights, coach Rick Bowness pulled Khodobin after the second period. Jake Oettinger finished up, stopping the only three shots he faced.

”The kid has battled so hard the whole playoffs, so I just gave him a breather. Back to back coming up, give (Oettinger) some more experience, but more just to give Dobie a break,” Bowness said of the move.

”Listen, he’s been a rock for us back there. We don’t get here without him,” the coach added. ”No one gets to the Final without great goaltending.”

Khodobin wasn’t alone in having an off night.

Defenseman Miro Heiskanen made an uncharacteristic mistake, turning the puck over in his own zone on Tampa Bay’s first goal. Bad penalties were a problem, too, with one of them leading to Victor Hedman‘s powerplay goal that put the Lightning up 3-1 less than a minute into the second period.

It was all Tampa Bay after that.

”We lost our team play, we lost our intensity and we lost our focus,” Bowness said. ”When you do that, a team like that is going to make you look real bad, which they did.”

Steven Stamkos on Game 3 return: ‘It was a dream come true’

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The cheer from the bench was just a little bit louder. The smile on Steven Stamkos‘ face was bigger than usual.

After 211 days away, the Tampa Bay Lightning captain returned to the lineup for Game 3 and made an impact — albeit in a brief appearance. Stamkos played only five shifts and 2:47 during Tampa’s 5-2 victory, but it was a worthwhile experience.

His goal 6:58 into the game gave the Lightning a 2-0 lead over the Dallas Stars. It was in early March that Stamkos underwent core muscle surgery and it has been two months since he was re-injured and miss everyone of Tampa’s Stanley Cup Playoff games before Game 3. So when his wrist shot flew over Anton Khudodin’s blocker, it was a moment he’d been waiting a long time for.

“At this time of the year you want to do anything you can to help your team win,” said Stamkos, who found out he’d be playing after Tuesday’s skate. “I’ve watched these guys be so committed to what our end goal is and to be part of it tonight, it was a dream come true, and I’m so proud of these guys to be able to share that moment with them.”

[Three Takeaways from Game 3]

The reaction of Lightning head coach Jon Cooper after the goal summed up the moment. Along with the general happiness of taking a two-goal lead in the first seven minutes of the game, there was also a bit of disbelief.

“You marvel at players,” Cooper said. “He only had five shifts, but probably an efficient five shifts as you’re ever going to see in a National Hockey League playoff game. … It was pretty damn cool.”

Before Wednesday night, Stamkos last played Feb. 25, with his last goal coming Feb. 20. It was a long road back to the ice. The March pause saw the 2019-20 NHL season hang in the balance, and when there was clarity on a resumption of play, he had to exit the lineup again hoping to come back during the playoffs. Fortunately for him, the depth of the Lightning allowed a return to be possible.

“Our group feels like we’ve got a recipe in how we want to play,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “No matter who’s going over the boards, no matter how many times you’re asked to go over, you see the effort and will from everybody, and that’s what’s been the key for us.”

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Stamkos had been left to be the team’s biggest cheerleader while he waited for the day he’d return to the lineup. Those moments watching were excruciating for him, and each series win brought another lifeline.

“It’s so painful to just sit and watch and feel like you have no part of the game because you’re way more nervous watching the games,” Stamkos said. “You want to have a say and you want to contribute.”

All that work since March has paid off. While Stamkos wasn’t ready to declare his status for the remainder of the series, his road to get to this point has not gone unnoticed by his teammates.

“He’s worked extremely hard to get back to a spot where he could play,” said Brayden Point. “Just seeing him day in, day out, the positivity he brings and the leadership he brings even when he’s not playing has been huge for us. For us to see him work that hard to get back in the lineup and then score one, it’s pretty inspirational for our bench.”

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1)

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

*if necessary

————

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.

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 (TB leads 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*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)

3 Takeaways: Lightning’s top players shine in Game 3 win

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Steven Stamkos briefly returned to the lineupand scored a goal! — while the Tampa Bay Lightning‘s top line continued to dominate in a 5-2 win over the Dallas Stars in Game 3 on Wednesday night.

The Lightning now lead the series by a 2-1 margin.

The two teams meet in Game 4 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final on Friday night at 8 p.m. ET on NBC (livestream).

Now, three takeaways from the Lightning win.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. Steven Stamkos didn’t play long, but he made an impact

The Lightning have been waiting to see Stamkos in an NHL game for nearly seven months. When he finally got back into the lineup, he played less than three minutes before exiting the game.

He did, however, manage to make a significant impact in those three minutes by delivering a bit hit on his first shift and then scoring a goal (on a beautiful play!) on his first shot.

He barely played after that, and in a way made some history.

Now we go back to wondering when, or if, we will see him again in this series.

His injury situation is not the only one to keep an eye on from this game.

Dallas also had a couple of issues as top-line winger Alexander Radulov exited the game late after being involved in a big collision behind the net, while Denis Gurianov was also hit in the face by a puck while sitting on the bench.

2. Victor Hedman looks unstoppable right now

Yeah, Stamkos briefly played and scored. Sure, the top line of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Ondrej Palat all scored goals and finished with two points each. But the player that really powers this machine remains Hedman from the blue line, and wow was he great — again! — on Wednesday.

He made a sensational defensive play early in the first period to disrupt a Denis Gurianov breakaway, played 22 minutes, scored his 10th goal of the playoffs, finished with a game-high three points, and once again helped dictate the pace of the game when he was on the ice. During 5-on-5 play the Lightning outshot the Stars 11-5 with Hedman on the ice, while they also scored a pair of goals.

All postseason Kucherov and Point have been the Lightning’s Conn Smythe favorites, but Hedman is starting to play his way into that discussion if they can win this series.

3. Anton Khudobin gets pulled

Khudobin was the key factor in the Stars’ getting through the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Final.

The were going to need another performance like that against Tampa Bay.

After getting one of those performances in Game 1, he has not quite matched that over the past two games.

Khudobin was benched after giving up five goals on 29 shots in just two periods of play on Wednesday, dropping his save percentage in the series to .906.

Even with that it would be unfair to put all of this on him. The Lightning scored a couple of fluky goals in Games 1 and 2 that went in off of weird bounces, while the Stars have also struggled to stay out of the penalty box at times.

Tampa Bay’s first goal on Wednesday came on a Nikita Kucherov breakaway after Miro Heiskanen was guilty of an ugly turnover in the neutral zone that put the puck right onto Kucherov’s stick. Just a few minutes later Stamkos scored his goal when the Stars had another defensive breakdown that left him alone, and then an ugly line change contributed to Point’s goal.

So there were some issues outside of the goalie.

It is not that he has played poorly, it is just that he has not played as well as he did in the previous series. Given the talent the Lightning have on their roster, and the way they have been playing all postseason, they might need him to find that level again.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (Lightning lead series 2-1)

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

*if necessary

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.