The Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning face-off in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night. Dallas clinched their spot after knocking out the Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the Western Conference Final. Tampa Bay dispatched the New York Islanders in six games to get here.
The interesting part of this series is that both teams will be playing a slightly better version of the opponent they just beat in their prior series. Dallas is a very solid defense-first team who enjoys turning games into coin-flips, just like the Islanders. The difference is that Dallas has slightly more offensive talent with names like Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Miro Heiskanen.
Tampa Bay is a team which spends a lot of time in the offensive zone and usually outplays their opponent in regards to time of possession and shot attempts. Vegas plays the same way. Unfortunately for Dallas, Tampa Bay does not have the same problem scoring goals that Vegas does.
Tampa Bay is the team expected to control play in this series, and that’s reflected in both the Game 1 moneyline as well as the series price. Tampa Bay is a -160 favorite in Game 1 and they are a -185 favorite to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.
In the postseason, the team’s numbers are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Tampa Bay has had 55.6% of the shot attempts, 57.3% of the expected goals and 58.2% of the high danger chances. Dallas has only had 48% of shot attempts in their games, 49.2% of expected goals and 49.4% of high danger chances.
While Dallas hasn’t been dreadful, they’ve been slightly below average in terms of shot attempts and quality of scoring chances. Tampa Bay has been one of the league’s best.
Some might preview this series and label it offense against defense. That would be a true disservice to the Tampa Bay Lightning. A more proper way to label this series would be to call it two elite defensive teams with one of the teams having more offensive prowess.
Despite their reputation as an offensive buzzsaw, it’s actually defensively where Tampa Bay shines the most. They lead the playoffs in terms of expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5v5, expected to concede just 1.75 times. In comparison, Dallas’ expected goals against comes in at 2.23.
Tampa Bay gains the edge when you compare high end talent. Brayden Point has 25 points in 17 games these playoffs while his linemate Nikita Kucherov has contributed 26 points in 19 games. The two are amongst the favorites to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the NHL playoff MVP.
In comparison, Dallas’ most highly regarded forward prior to these playoffs was Tyler Seguin. Seguin has been a huge disappointment for the Stars, never being able to find his game. The star center has just 8 points in Dallas’ 20 games. If Seguin doesn’t step it up in this Final, Dallas will not be able to keep pace with the Lightning’s offense.
This series features some of the game’s best defensemen. Victor Hedman of the Lightning is on fire. The Swedish defenseman has nine goals already in this postseason. Only two defensemen in the history of the sport have more goals in a playoff run than Hedman does so far in these playoffs. Not only is Hedman an offensive wizard, he’s one of the game’s best shutdown defensemen. Hedman did his part to slow down the Isles top line with Mat Barzal en route to the Lightning’s six game series win.
On the opposite side for Dallas, Miro Heiskanen has been tremendous. Heiskanen leads all defensemen in points in these playoffs with 22. The smooth-skating defenseman is just 21 years old. Playing in Dallas, his game isn’t on the national stage much but in these playoffs he’s establishing himself as an elite presence. John Klingberg also deserves recognition for Dallas. He has 16 points from the back-end and has done a great job driving play while on the ice.
In between the pipes, both teams are feeling just fine. Anton Khudobin was the story for the Stars against the Golden Knights. Vegas attacked and attacked, throwing everything at the Stars netminder. However, Khudobin stopped 95% of the shots he faced, thwarting the favorited Knights en route to a series win in five games.
In the opposite crease, Andrei Vasilevskiy is sometimes the forgotten man in Tampa. On a team with the offensive firepower of Point and Kucherov, the defensive prowess of Hedman and company, it’s sometimes easy to forget they have one of the league’s best goalies. Vasilevskiy has started all 19 Tampa Bay games in these playoffs, posting a spectacular .931 save percentage and 1.82 goals against average.
With the pressure mounting as the Cup is in sight, expect a slow start as these teams feel each other out. I’ve already outlined as to how both teams are extremely solid defensively, with brick-walls in between the pipes.
Tampa Bay just came off back-to-back 2-1 overtime games against the Islanders. While Tampa was playing these two tough games, Dallas has been resting and waiting for them. Tired legs could be a theme for the Lightning, but I’m not convinced Dallas will be able to take advantage. Therefore, I’m betting the under in Game 1.
THE PICK: Under 5.5 @ -148