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
[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.