By their own admission, the Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t play the type of game they’d hoped for in the opener of the Stanley Cup Finals on Saturday. It would have been convenient to blame fatigue for their slow start and inability to generate high quality chances; despite the 40 shots on goal, the Bolts rarely threatened Anton Khubodin in the opener. Excuses don’t count for much when you’re down to the last seven games series to determine the season’s champion, however. At some point, you just have to win. On Monday night, the Bolts didn’t exactly play their best game but they did get the win. If you asked Jon Cooper, he might tell you that’s all that counts right now.
For Dallas, Monday night will undoubtedly feel like something of a wasted opportunity. Tampa was ready from the puck drop, while the Stars seemed a bit sleepy. Where Dallas’ penalty-kill had been able to disrupt the Lightning puck movement in the opener, they seemed a step behind and slow to react in the first period of Monday’s affair. Tampa’s first two goals were on the man advantage, and courtesy of perfect passes from their talisman, Nikita Kucherov.
First, Brayden Point:
Then, Ondrej Palat:
Those openings just weren’t their in the first game, though the second pass is maybe more just another demonstration of Kucherov’s excellence than anything truly wrong with the Stars’ PK box alignment.
When Kevin Shattenkirk’s wrister from the point found its way through with less than five minutes left to play in the first, it capped a stretch of play that saw the Lightning take over the game completely. Tampa’s probably got the best group of skaters in the league, and when they start to roll downhill like they did in the first frame it can take everything to not get totally buried. The shots were 14-6, the score was 3-0 and a lot of hockey fans in Florida were probably breathing sighs of relief.
The thing about the Dallas Stars is that they aren’t pushovers. With all due respect to the New York Islanders, a great Cinderella story if there ever was one, they simply didn’t have the horses to compete with the Lightning. Their hope to win the Eastern Conference Finals was to muck things up and pray the bounces would go their way. The Stars might not be quite as strong as the Lightning, but they absolutely have the firepower to make the Eastern Conference champions work. Dallas can win on its own merit rather than a failure from their cometitors. In the second period, they did a bit of flexing of their own. Granted, Tampa shot itself in the foot a bit with a parade to the penalty box but Dallas carried the play — especially when Tampa’s top line of Point-Kucherov-Palat were not on the ice. Still, it wasn’t until Joe Pavelski tipped home a point shot that it felt like the Stars might have a chance.
As an aside, both teams’ top units have been sensational and it will be interesting to see whether the coaches elect to try some more best-on-best because neither team’s checking groups have been much good against the top trios.
The third period was tense, even more so after Mattias Janmark finished a pretty passing play with John Klingberg and Alexander Radulov:
Dallas never could quite muster the equalizer, however, and the only “goal” of the period was waved off when the Stars successfully challenged a Tampa goal that was deemed offisde. We’re back to square one.
With the series tied at one, there’s cause for optimism for both squads: for Dallas, they’ve shown that they can hang with the Lightning for long stretches of play, and that if they get ahead in a game they can batten the hatches enough to keep the Bolts at bay and secure a win. For the Lightning, they can take solace in the fact that they’ve really only hit their top gear for one of the first six periods but those twenty minutes alone were enough to earn them a win in game two and the split.
If I was a betting man, I’d still have the Lightning in six or seven but if Dallas prevails it won’t be by chance. We’ve got ourselves a real, competitive Stanley Cup Finals, folks. Feels good.