At various times throughout the play-offs, the Tampa Bay Lightning have looked like deserving champions. They ran roughshod over their old nemesis the Columbus Blue Jackets, they were clearly better than the Boston Bruins, and they out-classed the New York Islanders. New York pushed the Bolts to six games, but Tampa was clearly the better team; at no point did the Isles strike me as a real threat. Before Saturday night’s game against Dallas, I would have said much the same of the Stars: Tampa is just better, and they are going to win. Now, I’m not quite so sure.
Tampa peppered the Dallas net with shots on Saturday, and Anton Khubodin was superb, but the Stars got chances in the high danger areas in a way they hadn’t before. Despite the large deficit in shots and shot attempts, Dallas was clearly ahead in scoring changes and expected goals. Just look at this shot chart:
For what it’s worth, the Lightning are still ahead for the series in both scoring chances and expected goals in addition to shots and shot attempts. They are still the better team on their best night. But that game Dallas won on Saturday was no fluke, and with the news that Steven Stamkos will not return to the Tampa line-up in either game 6 or 7 there aren’t reinforcements wanting for the Bolts, either. This is the best Dallas and Tampa have, and for the first time these play-offs the Lightning are facing a team that on its best night has the potential to actually outplay them. The Stars will need to do it two more times in the next two games if they want to upset the favourites, but they have the knowledge it can be done. For Tampa, that must be a scary thing. For the rest of us, it should mean some great hockey.
Game 6 tonight.