In their first Stanley Cup Final game in 20 years, the Dallas Stars looked as though they hadn’t missed a beat and used their identity to secure a Game 1 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Now, the focus shifts to Game 2 as the Stars look to use their style to their advantage once again.
The Dallas Stars have won five consecutive playoff games just two times since moving to Dallas in 1993.
The first instance was back in 1999 where they set the franchise record with six straight wins and eventually won the Stanley Cup. The other occurred about a month ago when they rattled off wins in the final three games of their First Round series against the Calgary Flames and opened the Second Round with two wins against the Colorado Avalanche.
And with three straight wins in the Western Conference Final against the Vegas Golden Knights and a victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Monday night presents yet another opportunity for the Stars to accomplish that feat.
For a hockey team to win a playoff series is an impressive accomplishment by itself. But to win five straight on two different occasions in a playoff run that requires 16 to claim the Cup? That’s something that deserves to be talked about.
And, just as it seems to go in every game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it’s a pivotal contest for both the Stars and Lightning.
When the series opened on Saturday, cautious optimism abounded between both groups. Each team was veteran-heavy, had entered the 2019-20 season with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations, was fresh off of an impressive conference finals win, and was looking to build early momentum in one of the most unique Stanley Cup Final series of all-time.
The Stars ended up seizing that momentum.
Dallas put together a complete team effort that was built on their defensive identity, stellar goaltending, contributions from across the lineup, and protecting an established lead.
Joel Hanley scored his first-ever NHL goal to open the scoring, Jamie Oleksiak followed it up by activating in the offensive zone to score on a rebound, and Joel Kiviranta got one to go just before the end of the second period for his fifth in seven games. The Stars then shifted into their stingy defensive style and tacked on a Jason Dickinson empty-net goal late in the third while shutting the Lightning out in the final 20 minutes.
By the end of the game, the Lightning had scored only one goal (that found its way in after deflecting off of a few skates and sticks) in a game for the third time in this postseason run, the Stars had handed them their first three-goal loss of the playoffs, Anton Khudobin had turned aside 35 of 36 shots (including all 22 faced in the third period), a depth player had scored every goal for Dallas, and the Stars had a 4-1 win and 1-0 series lead in hand.
“It’s a team effort, it’s a team performance,” Khudobin said. “I made a couple good saves, I would say, but at the same time, we played together and we played as a team. It’s a team sport.”
“That’s how you win in the playoffs,” Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness added. “You get contributions from people that all of the sudden, they’re jumping up and making you a better team.”
All in all, the Dallas Stars followed the same recipe for success that has carried them through the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs in Game 1 against Tampa Bay. They set the tempo and pace from the opening puck drop, scoring the first goal and limiting the Lightning’s possession time and chances in the offensive zone.
They continued their physical trend, laying 50 hits and blocking 26 shots. They let unlikely heroes continue taking center stage. And when they had a two-goal lead going into the third period, they took to their defensive structure, limiting high-danger chances and getting a perfect period from Khudobin.
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It was another stifling performance by the Stars as the Lightning bore down in the third period but came up empty-handed. And, as it went against the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Final, the Lightning began showing early symptoms of frustration. What had worked for them through the first three rounds didn’t work in Game 1 against a well-prepared and confident Dallas Stars team.
“Yeah, maybe sometimes,” Tyler Seguin said on if he can notice when an opponent is frustrated. “But we let our coaches and stuff look at that. Sometimes, you get frustrated in a game and a lot of times, it’s a good thing. They’re a great hockey team over there, so we’re expecting a big start out of them [tonight].”
That’s where the focus now shifts to, and the pivot point in Game 2 is a rather grand one.
If the Stars win, they take a commanding 2-0 series lead and have to win two of the final five games to secure the Cup. Teams that own a 2-0 series lead in a best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final own an all-time record of 46-5. To add onto that, only two teams have overcome an 2-0 series deficit in the past 48 years (2009 Pittsburgh Penguins and 2011 Boston Bruins).
Meanwhile, the Lightning will attempt to get in the win column and get some momentum in their corner. They are 5-0 following a loss in this year’s postseason, outscoring their opponent 16-9 in those games. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, the Lightning’s top two producers in the postseason that were both held off of the scoresheet in Game 1, have a combined five goals and 13 points in those five wins.
“They’re an elite hockey team, they have elite skill, they have confidence, and they’ve been together a long time. They know how to overcome a little bit of adversity. That loss to Columbus last year – that four straight – probably made them even sharper and they learned from that. When you have elite skill, you’re confident, you’ve been together that long, and you face a lot of adversity over six or seven years – it’s not just this playoffs, it’s six or seven years – they know how to handle things. Again, we keep the focus on our team. We know what to expect from them and we know what we expect from our team tonight.” – Rick Bowness on the Lightning
A win would not only turn the series into a best-of-five, but give the Lightning some much-needed confidence following a rough turnaround from the Eastern Conference Final to Game 1.
But while they focus on getting out of the gate quicker and activating their own game plan, Dallas will try to stay focused on playing their game and continuing to find success though it.
“We keep the focus on us,” Bowness said. “We can’t control what the other team does and how they have their 12-6 or 11-7. That’s up to them. We just keep the focus on us. We know when we’re rolling our four lines, everyone is looking the same whether we do or don’t have the puck. Everyone is digging in, blocking shots, taking hits to make plays, and all of the little things that are necessary to win games. That’s how we want to play and that’s where we’re most comfortable playing.”
“It’s the style of hockey, part of our identity, and also who you’re playing and what you scout,” Seguin added. “We’re a big and physical team and it’s been part of our identity, so why stop now?”
Prior to Game 1, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper talked about how the first contest of a series is a “feeling out” game more than anything. Now, the talk around the Lightning is that they know what to expect from Dallas this time around and will be better prepared to handle the attack. Their efforts in the third period of Game 1 are expected to provide a sense of inspiration and motivation moving into tonight’s game.
“We took a lot of penalties and gave them a lot of chances,” Seguin said of the breakdown in the final period. “But like I said before, they’re a great hockey team and they’ve been the best team in the NHL for a while. Obviously after losing the first game, we’re expecting them to come out hard. We expect a lot more out of ourselves as well.”
Whether that is true or not will have to wait until tonight to be determined.
Until then, the effects of a 2-0 series lead and 1-1 series tie linger in the balance as the Dallas Stars continue committing to their identity while searching for a commanding series lead.
“You’re fighting for the Stanley Cup right now,” Bowness said. “There’s no waiting around to move on and see who you’re playing; this is it. There are two teams, and one of us is going to win the Stanley Cup. You have to be willing to lay it all on the line, so the physicality comes with that.
“You want your players playing with passion and emotion. When you combine them and what’s at stake, the physicality should be there.”