What a time to be a sports fan. Yes, you probably can’t go to watch your team in a venue – unless you live in Texas or Florida – but still, there is so much to enjoy at home.
Spectators of US sports are in a purple patch that will never be repeated. The NFL season has just started, Major League Baseball enters its last week of the regular season before an expanded playoff. The NBA is in its conference finals with the finals just around the corner, and the NHL has just started the Stanley Cup.
Not a bad time to suddenly develop a temporary bout of insomnia.
Despite losing game one in the early hours of Sunday morning, the Tampa Bay Lightning are still considered the favourites to leave with North America’s oldest trophy, ice hockey’s Stanley Cup.
Dallas Stars played a physical game and took advantage of four days more rest than Tampa (who have also played two overtime games in the past week), winning 4-1 on the night.
Game one was the first time since game two of the quarter-finals that Dallas had won a game by more than a single goal.
Dallas Stars finished their 69-game season with a miserly +3 goal difference. In fact, Dallas have spent the entire season eking out wins by a single goal, but that’s how they are built. The Stars finished the season with the best defensive record in the league and conceded a whopping 20 goals fewer than Tampa.
Tampa have been a team people expected to be here in the finals, or at least very close, and with the highest-scoring team in the regular season. In contrast, Dallas were the third lowest-scoring team in the entire NHL.
Since the start of the play-offs, Dallas have flicked a switch and suddenly become a creative, aggressive and very offense-led team. The Stars have scored 66 goals in their 22 games, in comparison with Tampa’s 60.
So what’s changed for Dallas? The Stars have found goals in their depth. The second and third lines have contributed with goals to back up the starters, making them a formidable opponent for anyone they have faced.
Defenseman Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg are in the top three points scorers for the Stars with eight goals and 31 assists between them. Their ability to help out in the final third has given Dallas’s scoring the boost it needed.
It’s not just the defensive duo, though. Dallas have seven players with double-digits points and seven players who have scored five or more goals.
Unfortunately, this more offensive approach has seen the Stars’ defense slip a little, while at the same time Tampa have suddenly tightened up. Tampa goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevskiy has allowed just 43 goals and posted a save percentage of .929, slightly ahead of Dallas starter Anton Khudobin who has allowed 50 in fewer games.
But there is a saying, credited to Alabama football coach Bear Bryan, that goes “offense wins games, defense wins championships”, and Dallas showed in game one that if they are to upset the Lightning, then it will be by protecting the goal.
Khudobin didn’t start the season as the No 1 goaltender in Dallas. Still, injury allowed him to step in and consistency, reliability and nerve have helped him remain between the sticks. On Sunday morning the team turned to the keeper in the third period to keep them in front and the 11-year veteran didn’t disappoint, posting a shutout when it mattered.
In the game, Khudobin saved 35 of the 36 shots on goal and if he continues to perform to that level, he will be another name on the long list of goaltenders on the Conn Smythe trophy at the end of the series.
If the Stars are to add their name to the long list of winners, finally, then it will be because they play to their strengths, which is to play lots of defense and to edge out Tampa in games with single-goal wins. Now more than ever the Dallas Stars need to find that defensive steel. If they do that then they will be surprise winners of the Stanley Cup.
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