As a service to fans who have a general interest in NHL hockey but have no idea what has happened in the past few months, we're happy to provide this FAQ as a guide to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.
The Stanley Cup Final is starting at the time when NHL training camps would normally be opening. How did we get here?
Like every other facet of life in 2020, the NHL was dramatically impacted by COVID-19. Its 2019-20 regular season was paused on March 12 due to concerns about the pandemic, with roughly a dozen games remaining. The next four months had the NHL and the players collaborating on not only a potential conclusion to the season but also a new collective bargaining agreement that would help navigate through the financial uncertainty.
On July 10, the NHL and the NHLPA announced a CBA extension through 2025-26 and an ambitious "return to play" plan: 12 Eastern Conference teams would play a postseason tournament in a Toronto bubble, while 12 Western Conference teams would do the same in an Edmonton bubble. The top four teams in each conference would compete in a round-robin tune-up for seeding; the other eight teams would play in a five-game series qualification round, after which the remaining teams would be seeded in a traditional 16-team tournament. There would be daily COVID testing, social distancing protocols and no fans in the arenas. The conference finals and Cup Final series would be held in Edmonton, which had remarkably low COVID numbers.
Phase 3, the return to training camp, started on July 13. Phase 4, the resumption of the season, had teams arriving in the "secure zones" on July 26. Hence, Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final scheduled for Saturday will be held roughly 56 days after the Stars and Lightning arrived in their bubbles. It will be the 20th game of the postseason for Tampa and the 22nd for Dallas.
Incredibly, the bubble has held: There have been zero positive tests for COVID-19 while the teams have been in the secure zones.
What's so special about the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars playing for the Stanley Cup?
Good question. After two seasons of franchises winning their first-ever Stanley Cups -- the Washington Capitals in 2018 and the St. Louis Blues in 2019 -- we have a couple of repeat customers here. The Stars won the Cup in 1999 and made the Final three other times -- in 2000, as well as in 1981 and 1991 as the Minnesota North Stars. The Lightning captured the Cup in their first trip to the Final in 2004, then lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015.
What makes this matchup historic for the NHL: It's the first time two Sun Belt teams have played for the Stanley Cup. It's actually been a banner year for nontraditional markets: Dallas hosted the Winter Classic in January at the Cotton Bowl against the Nashville Predators, the first Sun Belt edition of the NHL's signature outdoor game.
For the superstitious among us: Since 2008, this is the sixth time a team that appeared in the Winter Classic has advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. Those teams are 1-4 in the championship round.
How did the Stars get here?
It's been a tumultuous season in Big D. After losing in Game 7 of the second round to eventual champion St. Louis last postseason, the Stars added veteran free agents Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry to increase their playoff acumen. Dallas started the season with a thud, going 1-7-1, but followed that with a 17-4-2 stretch, establishing itself as one of the NHL's best defensive teams. But on Dec 10, 2019, the team was rocked by the sudden firing of head coach Jim Montgomery for "unprofessional conduct." He would later seek help for alcohol abuse and recently joined the Blues' coaching staff.
Assistant coach Rick Bowness took over the Stars, becoming the NHL's oldest head coach at 65 years old. Dallas had a record of 37-24-8 (third in the Central Division) but had lost six games in a row when the season was paused because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 12.
Expectations for Dallas were low in the postseason. The Stars went 1-2 in the round-robin and drew the Calgary Flames in the opening round. It was here that some of the coaching staff's tweaks to the Stars' game started to pay off. Dallas won the series in six games, scoring 21 goals.
The offensive roll continued against the Colorado Avalanche -- or what was left of the Avs after injuries -- as Dallas scored 28 goals in winning the semifinal series in seven games. The Stars captured Game 7 in overtime, as rookie forward Joel Kiviranta finished off a hat trick with the series-clincher.
In the Western Conference finals against Vegas, the Stars reverted back to their old defensively suffocating ways, limiting the Knights to eight goals in five games. Dallas got clutch goaltending from Anton Khudobin and timely scoring, including two overtime wins to bring their extra-session record to 5-0 in the postseason.
How did the Lightning get here?
Tampa Bay was humiliated last postseason, getting swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round after tying the NHL record for wins in the regular season (62). This season, coach Jon Cooper redoubled his efforts to get the Lightning to win "the right way" -- not just relying on offensive flourish -- and they eventually found their stride, at one point going on a 23-3-0 run. They were 43-21-6 at the pause, second place in the Atlantic Division.
They went 2-1 in the round-robin, drawing a first-round matchup against -- who else? -- the Blue Jackets. Game 1 of their series was an instant classic: the fourth-longest game in NHL history (150 minutes, 27 seconds), as No. 1 center Brayden Point scored in the fifth overtime. The Lightning got their revenge on Columbus with another overtime win in Game 5 to advance.
In the semifinals, the Lightning faced last year's Stanley Cup runners-up, the Boston Bruins. After losing Game 1, Tampa roared back with four straight wins, eliminating the Bruins in Game 5 on a double-overtime goal by defenseman Victor Hedman.
In the Eastern Conference finals against the New York Islanders, the Lightning overcame their third consecutive strong defensive opponent to win the series in six games. Point missed two games due to injury, and the Islanders won them both. He returned in Game 6, and the Lightning continued their playoff bubble tradition: winning an elimination game in overtime, this time on an Anthony Cirelli goal.
How did these champions handle the trophy superstition?
The NHL is filled with quirky trophy sorcery. It's been said that if a player touches the Stanley Cup before he earns the chance to do so, he's cursed to never win one. It's also been considered bad luck to touch the conference championship trophy, which is why you often see the winning team pose for a quick picture and then skate away from the hardware. That's what Dallas did with the Clarence Campbell Bowl; when captain Jamie Benn was asked if it was due to superstition, he replied, "Uh, sure."
On the other hand, Tampa Bay touched and lifted the Prince of Wales Trophy, after having not touched it in 2015 before losing in the Final to Chicago. "That was a no-brainer for us. We're not superstitious but obviously didn't touch it last time, so this year we did. That's the end of it. We won one trophy and now we're going for the next one," said Hedman.
Who are the key players?
Nikita Kucherov, the 2018-19 NHL MVP, leads the Lightning with 26 points in 19 games. Point has 25 points in 17 games, including a share of the team lead with nine goals. Hedman also has nine goals, putting him three behind Paul Coffey of Edmonton (1985) for the most goals by a defenseman in a single postseason. Hedman, who has skated 26:31 on average in the playoffs, is likely the team's top candidate for playoff MVP. In goal, Andrei Vasilevskiy has been quietly outstanding: 14-5 with a postseason-best .931 save percentage (minimum 14 games) and 1.82 goals-against average.
For Dallas, young star defenseman Miro Heiskanen leads the team with 22 points in 21 games. Captain Jamie Benn is having the playoffs of his life, with eight goals and 10 assists. His linemate, Alexander Radulov, has 14 points and two overtime game-winning goals. Rookie Denis Gurianov and veteran Joe Pavelski lead the team with nine goals each.
Who are the X factors for these teams?
For Dallas, it's been goalie Anton Khudobin. The 34-year-old has been a "No. 1-B" goalie at best during this NHL career. With Ben Bishop out, he's backstopped the Stars to the Stanley Cup Final, going 12-6 with a .920 save percentage and a 2.62 goals-against average. His best series came in the conference finals against Vegas. His athletic, scrambling style led teammate Tyler Seguin to compare Khudobin to former playoff MVP Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins.
For Tampa, it's a collection of veteran role players that GM Julien BriseBois added to the team in the last year. Forwards Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and Patrick Maroon, and defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Zach Bogosian have all played exceptionally well in the playoffs and are doing the little things to help the team succeed, something they lacked last postseason.
We haven't heard much about Steven Stamkos yet. What's up with the Lightning's captain?
It's been a frustrating season for Stamkos, the Lightning's 30-year-old offensive star. He had 66 points in 57 games but was forced to leave the lineup on Feb. 25 to have core muscle surgery. His recovery time would have allowed him to rejoin the team in the restart ... except he then suffered a lower-body injury during workouts in June and hasn't played a minute in the postseason.
He's skating again, but coach Jon Cooper said "definitely nothing's changed in the playing department any time soon." Stamkos did join his teammates in celebrating the conference championship on the ice after Game 6.
Are there any personal connections between the teams?
Yes, and it's primarily between the coaches. Bowness, who has coached in the NHL since 1984, was an assistant coach in Tampa Bay from 2013 to '18. Cooper's first season in the NHL as Lightning head coach in 2013 was Bowness' first season with the team, and Cooper has credited Bowness with being a mentor who helped him adjust to the league.
The goalie on that team was Ben Bishop, who starred with the Lightning from 2012 to '17 before arriving in Dallas in 2017-18. He's currently "unfit to play," as his backup Khudobin has taken over the crease.
What is 'We're not going home'?
WHAT HE SAID! 💪💪💪 pic.twitter.com/qLP69lqUHi— Dallas Stars (@DallasStars) September 15, 2020
It's the rallying cry for the Dallas Stars in the bubble, uttered in the dressing room by everyone from Benn to Kiviranta to Khudobin, most memorably after Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. It's made all the more impressive when one is wearing a Dallas logo the size of a hubcap around one's neck.
Finally, what are the odds on this series?
Caesars has the Tampa Bay Lightning as a -165 favorite to win the Stanley Cup over Dallas (+145). But the Stars are more than comfortable at this point when it comes to entering a series as the underdog.