Ahead of Game Two Monday night, the Tampa Bay Lightning will have to make some adjustments against the Dallas Stars.
While there are rumblings that Steven Stamkos might be back in the series, Tampa still finds itself down a game after dropping the opener Saturday by a final score of 4-1. It was not the showing the Lightning wanted, but it did set the stage for the matchup.
The Stars plan on reveling in their underdog role – and that could spell trouble for the favourites.
Dallas was the more rested team going into Game One, but how much that should matter is anybody’s guess. Everyone has some opinion about whether it’s better to go in hot or have time on your side when battling through the siege that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Now, if Tampa was watching the Vegas Golden Knights go up against the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Final, they learned some things. The time to apply that knowledge is now.
Vegas shelled Dallas through most of the series, outshooting them 109-65 in Games Three through Five. The trouble? The Golden Knights were outscored 8-5 in those games and dropped three decisions in a row.
In Game One, the Lightning outshot the Stars 22-2 in the third period but couldn’t put the puck past Anton Khudobin.
So volume isn’t everything. Check.
“You’ve got to get to the inside on these guys,” Tampa head coach Jon Cooper said. “You’ve got to take eyes away. When the goalie can see the puck in this league, usually, they’re pretty much stopping all of those. You have to make it disruptive. You have to make them uncomfortable in their surroundings.”
The matter of making Khudobin “uncomfortable” is paramount for the Lightning and you will undoubtedly see more action in the crease Monday. Tampa is the best offensive team in the NHL and they have managed to triumph over defensively-strong clubs like the New York Islanders, Boston Bruins, and Columbus Blue Jackets.
But does offence always beat defence? Not in hockey.
The Bruins were ranked better than the Stars defensively, but they were disconcerted in their series against Tampa – to put it mildly. Left with their backup in Jaroslav Halak, Boston put up a fight but not enough of one.
Against the Stars, the Lightning are facing a more motivated bunch and a robust netminder intent on winning the Cup and securing his spot as a starter in this league.
Khudobin has skated for 13 different teams in five countries over the past 14 seasons. The 34-year-old is shining in his first starting gig in the NHL, going 13-6 with a .923 save percentage in Ben Bishop’s absence. Drafted by Minnesota in 2004, he’s had stopovers all over the place – including with the Bruins behind Tuukka Rask in 2013 when they made the Final and lost to Chicago.
Solving that kind of driven netminder seems another of those intangibles they keep telling us about. There are formulas, like “getting the puck in deep” and “making life uncomfortable.”
Getting Stamkos back would be a major shot in the arm for Tampa and could tilt the balance. But then again, life in the bubble has shown us that what looks certain on paper seldom makes much of a difference when the puck drops.
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