Dallas and Tampa Bay, NHL sons of the Sun Belt, will face off in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final Saturday night in Edmonton, the league’s northernmost outpost.
Sounds more than a little upside-down, doesn’t it, settling things in the far north? But here we are, hockey fans. Why would we expect 2020 to deliver anything different?
If you’ve lost track, by the way, the Bruins opened up this COVID-protracted 2019-20 season last Sept. 16 with an exhibition game in New Jersey. The Devils took it in overtime, 4-3, but goalie of the future Kyle Keyser muffled each of the 17 shots he faced before ceding the Boston net to fellow future tender Dan Vladar.
So we are now officially a year-plus into the longest hockey season in the history of mankind, which — little-known tidbit here — dates to the same days as the invention of vulcanized rubber. Yep, carbon testing has proven that as absolute fact. Normally, I’d offer a link here to the test results, but, you know … yeah, still being audited.
The slight home-ice advantage in the Final must go to the Stars, because they are a mere 1,963 miles from their Big D digs, while the Lightning, who clinched their berth Thursday night with Anthony Cirelli’s OT winner over the Islanders, are 2,812 clicks from Amalie Arena.
That’s a difference of exactly 849 miles stacked in the Stars' corner. Hey, it all matters, and it’s a heck of a lot easier to grasp the concept of 849 miles than, say, a boatload of Corsi numbers and the even more esoteric POR (pucks over replacement) factor. Also, word has it you can see downtown Dallas from the box office of Rogers Arena in downtown Edmonton. I mean, who knew?!
OK, the truth is, after an exhaustive review of a mountain of analytics, I’m going with the Bolts in this one. That’s even with captain/superstar Steven Stamkos still out of the lineup. Even without the vaunted Tampa power play doing much vaunting (a middling 17.9 percent success rate through 19 games). And even with ex-Bruins goalie Anton Khudobin, “Doby the Adorable,” spinning his Tim Thomas-like fairy tale in the Dallas net.
In other words, gut read, people. Feel. I’m going with the Bolts, despite the fact they looked and sounded thoroughly exhausted after Cirelli potted the winner behind Semyon Varlamov with 13:18 gone in OT.
Cirelli’s strike came at 11:12 pm. ET, which means the Bolts will have had less than 45 hours of rest and recovery when the puck is dropped for Game 1 shortly after 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Such a rush.
Remember, the league shut down March 12 because of the pandemic and play didn’t resume until the start of August, a near five months of hockey nothingness. Now the Lords of the Boards are looking to play the first five games of the Cup Final over an eight-day span, with Games 4-5 on back-to-back evenings. Could someone please request a wellness check on commissioner Gary Bettman? The poor boy’s pants must be on fire.
“I guess we’ll see,” said Bolts coach Jon Cooper, musing around midnight over a question in the Zoom presser about whether his squad would have “enough left in the tank” to finish the job vs. Dallas. “This is unlike any other Stanley Cup Final where we’d get days rest.
"If you don’t go seven, you usually get days rest. We’re not here, but if you’re telling me, ‘Hey, Coop, you get to play in the Stanley Cup Final, and you’re only going to get 45 hours to rest before the game, but you’re going to get to play in it,’ I’m taking that all day.”
And undoubtedly twice on those back-to-back days.
The Lighting also have a couple of added layers of motivation that don’t exist for the Stars.
No. 1, they were humiliated in Round 1 last spring when they were rubbed out in four straight by No. 8 seed Columbus after a monstrous (62-16-4) regular season. They’ve talked openly, though humbly, about playing with a chip on their shoulders this time around, and they are now 14-5, for a postseason best 73.7 points percentage (compared with 13-8/61.9 for Dallas).
“I haven’t thought about that in a long time,” said Victor Hedman, the Bolts' uber-talented defenseman and one of the leading candidates for the Conn Smythe (playoff MVP) Trophy. “We faced [Columbus] in the first round this year, so I think that really took care of that thought process in our minds.”
No. 2, Hedman and other Tampa core players (Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and others) all made it to the Cup Final in 2015, only to fall short to the Blackhawks in six games. The Stars haven’t been to a Cup Final since losing to the Devils in 2000. Their top scorer in this postseason, defenseman Miro Heiskanen (5-17—22) had yet to turn a year old.
The “fell-short” factor still hangs heavy for many in the Bolts dressing room.
“We haven’t won a Stanley Cup,” noted Cooper. “Just getting here is a grind, but we’ve been so close. We’ve lost in some Game 7s. You have to cherish these moments and try your best to take advantage of them. We’ve been knocking at the door and it can get frustrating
"Summers, time-wise they are so short, but mentality-wise they are long.”
It comes down, Cooper added, to having faith in process, believing in methods and practices.
“And you have to believe in your players that jump on board,” he added. "In the end, it’s a players' game, and for us to get back to the Final … I don’t know, I might as well have marbles in my mouth because I am fumbling over them, I am so damn excited, and I am excited for our players.
"This journey, especially after what happened last year, we kind of took it on the chin, and rightfully so, we deserved to take it on the chin.
“But to counterpunch like we have this year … good on those guys.”
Tampa clinches in six on Sept. 28. Also known as Day No. 65 in the bubble.
“When you look back at this — and it’s not over — we’ve been in a hotel for 54 straight days,” said Cooper. “And when people said — and it was easy to say — ‘Oh, this might be one of the hardest Cups to win.' It might be one of the hardest Cups ever to win.”