The Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars will meet in an unprecedented Stanley Cup final, each pursuing a second NHL title in a season upended by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It might be one of the hardest Cups to ever win,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said after the Lightning clinched the Eastern Conference crown with a victory over the New York Islanders in the league’s quarantine hub at Edmonton.
“Whoever raises this Cup, they’ll have earned this one, I’ll tell you that.”
The Lightning will take the ice against the Stars for game one in the best-of-seven series on Saturday, less than 48 hours after polishing off the Islanders.
Dallas enjoyed a bit more time off in the bubble after clinching victory over the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference final on Monday.
Denis Gurianov scored a power play goal in overtime for Dallas, which reached the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 2000 – a year after they claimed the championship.
The Lightning are seeking to add a second title to the one they captured in 2004. They fell in six games to Chicago in the championship series in 2015.
But no NHL team has played a Stanley Cup final at a neutral site with no fans in attendance – and never before have two teams from the US “Sun Belt” faced off for the ultimate prize.
For the Lightning, their run to the title series is a vindication after they were swept in the Eastern Conference first round last season after earning the Presidents Trophy for best regular-season record.
“We put that behind us,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said.
The Stars have taken a wild ride through the playoffs, trailing Calgary 2-1 in their first round series and trailing 3-0 in the sixth game against the Flames before rallying to advance.
They trailed the Colorado Rockies with less than four minutes to play in game seven, but rallied again.
The Stars defeated the Calgary Flames in six games, the Colorado Avalanche in seven games, and the Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the Western Conference Final.
“We have a really hungry team. From young guys to old guys, to our coaching staff, our whole organization really wants to put everything out there for this last series,” veteran Stars forward Andrew Cogliano said. “There have been hiccups, times when it hasn’t been perfect, but it seems like we’ve always found a way to rise to the occasion and make things happen at the right time, through each series.”
The Stars will be leaning on defenseman Miro Heiskanen, who leads the team with 22 points in 21 games.
Captain Jamie Benn has been outstanding in the playoffs with eight goals and 10 assists and linemate Alexander Radulov has delivered two game-winning goals in overtime.
Rookie Denis Gurianov and veteran Joe Pavelski lead the team with nine goals each.
Tampa Bay’s 2019 MVP Nikita Kucherov leads the Lightning with 26 points in 19 games. Center Brayden Point has 25 points in 17 games, including nine goals, which shares the team lead with Hedman.
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is 14-5 in the post-season, with a .931 save percentage.
Goalie Anton Khudobin, backup to Ben Bishop during the regular season, has emerged as a star with Bishop sidelined in the playoffs, stopping 95 per cent of the Golden Knights’ shots in three straight wins.
“He’s a competitor,” Stars captain Benn said. “He comes to play every night.”