It’s been a physical, hard-nosed style of hockey through the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final between the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning. Hits have been dealt, bruises have been created, and the disdain has built in an evened series. Expect to see much of the same in a big Game 3 on Wednesday.
Through the first few days of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, it’s been intriguing to see how many questions posed to players or coaches over Zoom have been met with an answer along the lines of, “We’re fighting for the Stanley Cup” or “It’s the Stanley Cup Final.”
Perhaps that’s because it’s an obvious and effective catch-all. The Stanley Cup Final is the biggest stage of every hockey season and requires teams to find a new level of effort and execution if they hope to come out on top. An inquiry pertaining to something unordinary or heightened that happens in a game can be effectively answered by pointing to what’s on the line. It’s the Stanley Cup, so everyone is juiced up and digging in a little deeper.
And so it went when a handful of players and coaches from the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning were asked about the ramped up physicality seen throughout the first two games of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.
“It’s hockey,” Stars forward Corey Perry said. “We’re battling for the Stanley Cup, plain and simple. Nobody’s going to give you any room on the ice; you’re going to have to earn it, battle, and outwork the guy that’s staring across from you. They’ve been here before and we have some guys in our room that have been here before. We know what it takes as well.”
“At this time of the year, I’m sure guys are hurting on both teams,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “It just goes to show how much these players want to win and they’re sacrificing a ton to do it. That’s why the physicality is so high. I do believe it can wear on a team. If you start winning the physical battle matchup, I think that team will have an upper hand.”
“You’re playing for the Stanley Cup,” Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness added. “If the hit’s there, take it. It’s both teams playing the same schedule and neither team is traveling. We’re all in the same scenario and we’re going to continue to stress physical play. If it’s there, we take it.”
Simply put: if playing with a physical and gritty edge provides a leg-up in what is now essentially a best-of-five series, neither team is going to hesitate.
And so it’s gone through the first two games as the Stars and Lightning have combined for 207 hits (100 by Dallas, 107 by Tampa Bay) and have left little to be desired in the realm of physicality and resentment.
“I think both teams play physical and we both compete,” Lightning forward Tyler Johnson said. “You’re going to get those hits. I don’t think anyone is going out there trying to knock people out of the series or anything like that. We’re playing the game and doing everything we can to win within the rules of the game. Like you said, both teams are probably banged up. I think that happens every year in the playoffs.”
The heightened intensity in the early going of this Stanley Cup Final is both rational and unexpected at the same time.
On the one hand, this is the final round of the playoffs and the point where everything is decided. When this series wraps up, you’ve either won the ultimate prize and hoisted the Stanley Cup or go home empty-handed after enduring nine weeks of life in a bubble.
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“I think everyone is getting cooped up a little bit, so you let out your anger on the ice,” Johnson said. “Going into this, a lot of people weren’t concerned, but were thinking about what the playoff hockey is going to be like. I think the questions have been answered. The guys are competing, working hard, it’s been physical, and guys are doing everything they can to win.
But on the other hand, these two teams look to be channeling a rivalry that has been building for five days. The Stars and Lightning only meet twice during a typical regular season and this is their first postseason matchup against each other, so there really isn’t a lot of history between the two clubs.
And yet, the exact opposite seems to be true as Dallas and Tampa Bay haven’t been shy in dishing out some heavy blows through the first two contests.
Jamie Oleksiak has 12 hits. Denis Gurianov and Blake Comeau are close behind with 11 apiece. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin each have eight. On the Tampa side, Barclay Goodrow has already logged 15 hits, while Cedric Paquette and Blake Coleman have registered 13 each.
The hits are abounding, and many of them haven’t been ordinary, run-of-the-mill checks.
In Game 2 alone, there were a number of seismic collisions that left players either shaken up or removed from competition entirely. Nikita Kucherov took a handful in the early portion of the game and left the game for a few minutes before returning. Blake Comeau was pinpointed by Ryan McDonagh and left the game in the second period favoring the right side of his body. Jamie Oleksiak planted Blake Coleman into the boards.
“I think everybody knows how I play and what makes me successful. Those are little battles that happen during a game.” – Corey Perry on the increased physicality
Mixed into these big collisions were the expected scraps and scrums. Corey Perry was a frequent participant in Game 2, getting into it with both Cedric Paquette and Victor Hedman throughout the game. Hedman and Klingberg exchanged some words. And following a number of whistles, you could expect anything from two players tying up to all 10 skaters on the ice finding a partner to jostle with.
It’s to be expected. After all, it is the Stanley Cup Final. Both clubs are three wins away from achieving their ultimate goal and will do what’s necessary to make it happen. Playing with an edge and some extra grit should certainly help in the pursuit.
But with the heightened physicality comes a line of caution that must be navigated. A lot of the talk surrounding the Dallas Stars during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs has involved playing with emotion, but not playing emotionally. In other words, using emotions to generate intensity, but not allowing it to control efforts and turn into bad penalties or errors.
Such was the case in Game 2 as the Stars put themselves on the penalty kill four times and allowed the Lightning to kick in the door in the first period with three goals, two of which came on the power play.
Even so, Dallas still found a way to claw back to within a shot in the third period. As a result, hindsight seems to say that a few less penalties in that game probably would have resulted in a win for the Stars and a 2-0 series lead.
But the “what if” game is a pointless one to play at this point in a season (even if it’s September). All you can do is learn from the mistakes, refocus, and commit to playing smarter in Game 2. It worked in Game 1 and led to a dominant performance, so it should be substantially beneficial in a big Game 3.
“It starts with us managing the puck,” Perry said. “If we put it in good spots, have the puck, and are physical on their defense and – when they’re coming into our zone – we’re physical on their forwards, those are good plays. It’s being physical without the puck that can get you in trouble.”
As the series gets closer to a completion, the intensity and aggression should only build. That can be good news for the Stars, so long as they continue to apply it properly and use it to their strength.
“Dallas is a bigger team,” Johnson said. “They’re strong and they play with good defensive structure, and we do, too. When you get two teams like that, it’s going to be a hard-fought battle. Going this far, you’re so close yet you’re still far away. You’re literally doing everything right now. We’ve had some pretty good games against them so far. We’re just trying to keep that compete up and be ready for Game 3 here.”
But it’s going to revolve around not pushing the emotions too far, finding the happy medium, and being able to commit to playing their style of hockey and keeping the game at 5-on-5 while forcing Tampa Bay into mistakes. They did that in the first 40 minutes of Game 1, and it turned into a 3-1 lead at second intermission that Anton Khudobin proceeded to seal off in the third as the Lightning made one last push.
That’s the style Dallas must play to be successful, and they have already proven that they can execute it against this Lightning team. All they have to do is figure out how to stay out of the box while also keeping the emotional energy intact and charged up.
“I think you have to win your individual battle,” Perry said. “You’re not going to win every single battle on the ice, but you win your fair share of battles. It’s battling for the loose puck or taking a hit to make a play and all of the cliches. We know what we have to do, and when we’re emotional and physical, that’s when we’re playing well.”