It’s finally come to this, as hockey in the bubble has led to the Dallas Stars taking on the Tampa Bay Lightning for the ultimate prize in sports.
Through all the wrangling and difficulty associated with running an elite tournament in the midst of a pandemic and with teams competing away from home, there are two teams left standing in a world without fans in the stands.
When the puck drops on Game One Saturday, the Stars and Lightning will have been inside the bubble for 55 days – away from their families and away from the outside world.
On paper, at least, the Lightning seem to be the favourites. But Dallas owns the head-to-head record this season and has proven a plucky, determined opponent for many teams that should have been superior on paper.
Dallas owns the better power play (27.3 percent) in the post-season, but Tampa has the better penalty kill (83.6 percent), goals-for rank (3.11 goals per game), and goals-against rank (2.21 goals against per game).
Tampa dispatched the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games in the first round of the playoffs, but they did battle through an epic Game One that wound up being the fourth-longest game in NHL history at 150 minutes, 27 seconds.
In the second round, the Lightning took down the Boston Bruins in five. And against the Islanders, Tampa took six games to get the win.
While Tampa has struggled at times, they’ve largely delivered when necessary and boast highly skilled players at all positions. With the return of Brayden Point in Game Six against New York, the roster is again stacked to the rafters – and to think they haven’t had Steven Stamkos for a single game.
The Stars had a more strenuous road to the Final, entering with the 26th-ranked offence in the regular season as they took on the Calgary Flames. That series went six games and led to the Colorado Avalanche, a seven-game battle in which the victors were outscored 29-28.
In the next round, the Stars met the Vegas Golden Knights and defeated the opposition in a surprising five games. The defensively-minded Golden Knights were supposed to be the toughest test yet, but Dallas was rolling – and that could be a problem for Tampa Bay in the Final.
The Stars have received terrific goaltending from Anton Khudobin, but the Lightning counter with Andrei Vasilevskiy. He’s allowed more than two goals just one in his past nine starts and has a 1.82 goals against average in the bubble. Khudobin has a 2.62 goals against average, with a .920 save percentage. He had a .950 save percentage against Vegas and seems to be rolling at just the right time.
There are, of course, intangibles and surprises in every series. The Stars are in a position few expected them to be in, while Tampa is right where most assumed they would be. But Dallas is more than happy to embrace their role as underdogs against the Lightning, especially as life in the bubble has turned everything upside down.