Twenty years, in many ways, is a lifetime ago.
The 2000 Dallas Stars were made up of a core of champions, expected to be there, and were respected, if not feared, by all in the National Hockey League. In essence, the 2000 Stars are everything the 2020 Dallas Stars are not. Don’t think so? Stumble onto Twitter and read the stream of negative press the team has received.
In other words, those sentiments should plainly read like this: The Dallas Stars aren’t supposed to be here.
However, the Stars are supposed to be here based on the road traveled through the Western Conference: Ripping a series away from the Calgary Flames, a team against whom the Stars were heavy underdogs. Winning a run-and-gun series against the Colorado Avalanche, who were all but anointed for their place in the Western Conference Final by pundits. Finally, Dallas’ boa-constrictor defense squeezed the life out of the Vegas Golden Knights, whom nearly all pundits picked to walk through the Stars.
Three series won, in three different ways. As if the Stars simply adapted to the game they had to play and did it better than their opponent. Now, there was certainly some luck involved, no team comes this far without a smattering of it. However, the Stars worked hard and work creates luck. Everything in this Stanley Cup Final appearance for the Stars was earned.
So too will be the Stanley Cup if they can earn four wins for the right to lift it.
The Tampa Bay Lightning will be the stiffest test the Stars will have to face in this playoff year. The Lightning finally put down the New York Islanders in six games, advancing to their second SCF appearance in five years (third overall). The Lightning are driven by their almost superior top-end talent throughout their lineup. Their first line is every bit as scary as what the Stars saw playing against Colorado. The Tampa Bay blue line is anchored by Victor Hedman, a monster in every sense of the word. Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the top goaltenders on the planet.
The Stars earned their right to be in the Final, and for that, they will have to earn the Stanley Cup by beating a team who believe their time on top of the mountain has come.
Miro Heiskanen vs Tampa Bay Top Line
Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov have been a force through the Eastern Conference. The two players have combined for 51 points. Along with their linemate Ondrej Palat, the Tampa Bay top line has combined for a stat line of 23 goals and 41 assists for 64 points.
Apologies to the top line trio the Stars saw from Colorado, but the Tampa Bay trio is quite literally a whole different animal. Point, Kucherov, and Palat bring a terrifyingly effective combination of speed, vision, and power that is hard to defend against. To make matters worse, Point and Kucherov possess shots that are lethal from nearly anywhere on the ice. However, their top line doesn’t shoot from anywhere, they shoot from the scoring areas. The combination of talent mentioned above slices through defenses and gains interior positioning, thus creating clean looks from the slot.
The stat line that line has produced is evidence enough of how effective they have been. The line also plays extremely well off of each other. Their spacing is nearly always at an effective length, which makes the players without the puck an option for the puck-carrier. Below is some footage of one play to bring that home.
The top line for Tampa doesn’t just drive the car, it’s the engine.
BRAYDEN POINT IS BYKE pic.twitter.com/z8Cd0W4qo5— Grace Remington (@GraceRemiWTSP) September 13, 2020
Which once again brings us to Miro Heiskanen.
Heiskanen had a relatively quiet series against the Vegas Golden Knights, which is understandable given that the Stars punctuated the importance of defending. Heiskanen only recorded one assist in the series — on that gorgeous breakaway goal by Jamie Oleksiak in Game 3. With Heiskanen, it isn’t always about the points, which was the key storyline attached to him leaving the Colorado series.
The beauty of his game is that he can play anyway he has to play in order to be successful. Turn it loose to create offense? Heiskanen can do that in spades. Play responsible hockey in the defensive zone? He can do that too. The trick in the Final will be that, in order to contain the Tampa Bay top line, Heiskanen will have to do both for the majority of the series. It’s a safe bet that with Heiskanen’s puck-moving ability and Oleksiask’s size and physicality, the pair will draw a lot of ice time against the Tampa Bay line of Point, Kucherov, and Palat.
In order for the Stars to win the Stanley Cup, it will have to come on the back of their all-world defenseman.
Which System Will Rule?
In the Western Conference Final, the Stars reverted back to their familiar defensive system. The system that they had largely abandoned for stretches against Colorado in Round 2 saw a rebirth against Vegas. The Stars’ trap system and interior fortress in their own zone worked to chilling effect against the Golden Knights. The Stars were able to limit the Golden Knights to eight total goals for the series, and only three of them came at the Dallas net-mouth.
To compound the Golden Knights’ problems, the Stars gave the, what they were willing to give them. The outside of the rink.
The Golden Knights were a volume shooting team, racking up high shot totals through their first two playoff series. The Stars knew that, so they gave the Golden Knights what they could reasonably live with. If the Golden Knights wanted to shoot the puck, let them. If the puck beat Anton Khudobin from the outside (which five did), then the Stars could live with the result. What the Stars were absolutely not going to do was allow the Golden Knights the interior for net-mouth chances. Which is exactly the way Dallas wants to defend anyway.
Which brings us to this — Dallas was able to create pressure points on the Vegas offense. The center was always responsible for his man down low, the wingers stuck to the points, and the defense guarded the net-front and lower dots. When the Golden Knights bobbled the puck, the pressure points were there for the Stars to pounce and exit the zone. The Stars also used their in-zone structure to comfortably switch to man-on-man coverage when needed. If the Golden Knights wanted to rotate, the Stars would rotate with them.
Here’s a quick sequence of the Stars’ structure in their own zone:
It was masterful defense, even if the shot totals were lopsided throughout the series. To make matters worse for the Golden Knights, their lack of interior offense allowed for clean lanes for Khudobin to find pucks. A lot has been made of the Golden Knights being unable to score, but the Stars didn’t really allow them to do so with any regularity.
This heat map will properly describe the contrast that is awaiting the Stars:
I'll do a proper preview later today but what makes that especially interesting is that the middle of the slots is precisely where the Stars do /not/ allow shots. pic.twitter.com/U9p1T707f8— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) September 18, 2020
Tampa Bay on the other hand, makes their offense from shooting the puck right where Dallas is determined to never allow the puck to be. The slot is where Tampa Bay likes to be, and like a dog on a bone, they are determined to be there.
For Tampa Bay, it is almost as if the outside of the rink doesn't exist as a place where the puck should be. The only purpose the outside of the rink serves is as the point to where the puck can be funneled back into the guts of the ice. Even that is a generous take on how the outside of the rink should be used. Ideally, the Lightning will carry the puck up the wall, only to then take the middle and fire a shot or pass into the middle of the ice.
On the game-tying goal in Game 6 against the Islanders, Tampa rotated the puck up the wall, while their third forward found his way high in the offensive zone. The puck found its way to Hedman, who quickly moved the puck back up top to the middle for a shot. As the shot came, Hedman was already cutting to the middle to activate. Eventually the shot produced a terrible rebound which Hedman deposited into the net. It is also important to note that the Lightning had absolutely no net-front pressure or screen deployed. That is by design. It makes everyone on the ice an option to — you guessed it — funnel the puck back to the middle.
How to recreate TBL's great OZ motion:— Jack Han (@JhanHky) September 12, 2020
1) 2 forwards low, 3 backs high
2) 3rd F reports between Ds on pucks below hashmarks, then attacks down
3) Ds pinch down the wall at every opportunity with 1 F balancing up
4) No one stands at the net - sweep in & out
That's it! pic.twitter.com/3D8VKW3Nix
This is exactly how Tampa Bay wants to play and what Dallas has to prevent.
The question then becomes how does Dallas stop this play? The Stars were faced with a similar set up in Game 3 on the Oleksiak goal when they had to switch to man-on-man coverage. They will likely see themselves in similar situations all through the Final. Ideally, the Stars need to rotate with the Lightning, remaining aware of the situation and where their man is at any given moment. Efficient, accountable defending can act as a check on efficient, creative offense. Where the Lightning thrive is on confusion, much like a gimmick offense in college football. It’s hard to stop something you hardly ever see.
The Bottom Line
Overall, this series is going to come down to a few important points for the Dallas Stars — things they’ve already done and things they must start to do in order to win their second championship.
1. Anton Khudobin needs to give the Stars a solid performance and steal a game or two.
2. The Stars must out-check the Lightning for the majority of the series.
3. The “Big Three” need to keep showing up, plus Tyler Seguin.
To address the first point, Anton Khudobin was masterful in the Western Conference Final. His performance allowed the Stars to survive the onslaughts and his play steadied the team in front of him. In the Final, he will have to replicate his performance if the Stars are to win, because it is a safe bet that Vasilevskiy at the other end will provide solid goaltending as well. Vasilevskiy has been incredible, posting a .930 save percentage through these playoffs, tops in the league. Khudobin has been good himself with a .920 mark in the same category. The Stars will need every bit of that mark and more if they are to win, meaning that Khudobin will need to steal a game in this series.
Secondly, checking will be a huge part of determining how successful the Stars will be in this series. Overall, the Stars are a fast, skilled team, but their identity is in how they check and pressure the puck. The Stars must use their checking to clog up the game, making the games as miserable to watch as possible. The more boring the game is for viewers, the more success the Stars will have in it. The Tampa Bay defense must be hounded constantly, with their forwards being made to pay a price for chasing after loose pucks. Smart, relentless, physical play will be all-important for the Stars.
Lastly, the Stars need their big guns to show up again in this series. The Stars can reliably figure what they will receive from their bottom six. The checking lines will check, which will mean they will do their job of keeping the game manageable for the Stars. Tampa Bay is going to score more than eight goals, and Dallas will need to respond. This is where Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov, Roope Hintz, and Denis Gurianov will step in to provide the offense. These players have been great in the playoffs, but will need to dial it up again in the Final. Then there is Tyler Seguin and Joe Pavelski, who, if both suddenly get hot in a series, can truly tip the offensive scales in Dallas’ favor. It’s safe to say those two will need to start and keep producing.
The Stars also add an element that the Lightning probably haven’t seen yet. The Stars’ defense is both mobile and defensive in a way that the Islanders were not. The Stars’ defense acts as a motor offensively for this team, while serving as the backbone. In many instances, the Islanders were comfortable ceding the blue line to defend against the Lightning rush. Against the Lightning, the Stars will compete for the blue line, making the rush for the Lightning a bit more difficult. The compete at the blue line also allows the Dallas forwards enough time to come back in the play defensively.
Then there is the tandem of John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen, which is something entirely new to the Lightning. The presence of two elite puck-moving defensemen will add an element to the Dallas game that makes them extremely dangerous. If the Stars have success offensively, it will largely come from the activation of their defense once again.
So here we are, the cusp of the first Stanley Cup Final game in franchise history since Game 6 at Reunion Arena in 2000. It’s been a long, winding road, but finally we are here.
Game 1 will start at 6:30 p.m. CT. Be loud. Wear green. Go Stars.