EDMONTON, AB — Tampa Bay and Dallas are not your traditional American hockey cities, but this is 2020 -- "traditional" vanished six months ago.
The Stanley Cup Final has arrived at the NHL "bubble" in Edmonton and two teams remain.
The Tampa Bay Lightning were founded in 1992 and have one Stanley Cup to their name (2004).
The Stars moved from Minnesota to Dallas in 1993 and also have one Cup in team history (1999).
Both teams have also taken similar, yet unique, paths to the Cup.
Last year, the Lightning won the Presidents' Trophy -- awarded to the team with the most points in the regular season.
It was the first time a Presidents' Trophy winner was swept in the opening round.
The embarrassment added fuel to an already raging fire.
Tampa Bay finished the 2019-2020 regular season with the third most points (92) and led the NHL in scoring (3.47 goals per game).
By comparison, the Stars finished the regular season 26th in goals scored with 2.58 per game.
(In the playoffs, the Lightning scoring average has dropped to 3.11 goals per game, while the Stars have surged to 2.95 per game.)
Lightning strikes twice
The Lightning attack is reminiscent of the one that led them to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final against Chicago. (The Blackhawks won in six games.)
The 2015 Lightning featured seven players who totaled 14+ points in the postseason. Six of those seven are still on the team: Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat and Steven Stamkos
Johnson led the 2015 Cup playoffs with 23 points (0.88 points per game), while Kucherov had 22 (0.85 ppg).
The 2020 Lightning are obliterating those numbers.
Kucherov leads the 2020 Cup playoffs with 26 points (1.37 ppg), while young star Brayden Point has 25 (1.47 ppg)... and they still have a series left to play.
Kucherov and Point are joined on the top line by the veteran Palat (13 postseason points).
It is certifiably insane that the Lightning are this good offensively and they're doing it without its six-time All-Star.
Steven Stamkos hasn't played since Feb. 25 -- sidelined with a lower body injury, he's not expected to return for the Cup Final.
The 30-year-old superstar is one of the best forwards in hockey and racked up 66 points in 59 games during the '19-'20 regular season. (Kucherov finished the reg. season with 85 points -- 7th most in the NHL.)
In net, the Lightning are led by goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The 26-year-old Russian has shown dramatic improvement in the postseason -- allowing 1.82 goals per game with a 93.1% save percentage vs. 2.56 gpg and 91.7% in the regular season.
However, the X-factor for Tampa Bay -- in my mind -- is defenseman Victor Hedman.
Hedman was a budding star in the 2015 Cup Playoffs. Now, he's the engine to the league's top offense.
Hedman registered 55 points in the reg. season -- 3rd most among NHL defensemen.
In the playoffs, he has 15 points including nine goals to lead all defensemen.
The Lightning are 9-2 this postseason when Hedman totals at least one point.
If Hedman is active and engaged, Tampa is near impossible to stop offensively.
Alternately, the Stars have relied on elite goal-tending to reach their first Cup Final since 2000.
Dallas allowed 2.52 goals per game in the regular season. (Tampa allowed 2.77.)
While the Stars have allowed 3.05 during the postseason, anyone who's watched this playoff run knows they wouldn't have come this far without goalie Anton Khudobin.
"Dobby" -- as he's affectionately called -- has made some remarkable saves in remarkable moments.
It's no fluke.
Khudobin turned in the best season of his career in 2019-2020 -- a league-leading 93% save percentage, while allowing 2.22 goals per game (tied-3rd in NHL).
It's incredible that Dobby's done what he's done, despite serving as the backup goalie to Ben Bishop during the regular season.
The 34-year-old has taken over for Bishop in the playoffs, with Bishop labeled "unfit to play." The Stars have not provided further information regarding Bishop's status/ailment.
Bishop has only started three games since the Stars postseason began on Aug. 3. His last start was Aug. 31 -- a 6-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche.
Bishop was the starting goalie for the Lightning in the 2015 Cup Playoffs. Perhaps he'll get a shot against his former team, but it seems unlikely given what we saw from Dobby in the Western Conference Final.
Khudobin becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season and his highlight tape from 2019-2020 will surely earn him a starting job somewhere.
Bishop is signed through 2024, so it seems unlikely that "somewhere" will continue to be Dallas.
Constellation of Stars
Stars captain Jamie Benn (18 postseason points) leads the way for a deep, veteran group of forwards.
Drafted by the Stars in 2007, Benn is set to play in his first Stanley Cup.
Meanwhile, this will be the third Cup appearance for forward Tyler Seguin, who won one (2011) as a rookie and lost one (2013) with the Boston Bruins.
In the offseason, the Stars added Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry -- two key forwards on the tail-end of their careers but still with enough gas in the tank to make an impact.
Pavelski (aka "Captain America") has the third most playoff goals by an American-born hockey player in NHL history (57) -- three behind Joe Mullen (60) and just one behind Stars legend and '99 Cup champion Mike Modano (58).
Pavelski played for the San Jose Sharks in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final but lost to Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Perry, however, hoisted the Cup once before as a member of the 2007 Anaheim Ducks.
In a series that will require scoring and fortitude, Pavelski and Perry are an experienced pair fit for the challenge.
Not to be forgotten: Russian forwards Alexander Radulov (14 playoff points) and Denis Gurianov (17 playoff points) have been clutch for Dallas this postseason.
Radulov scored the overtime game-winners in Game 6 vs. Calgary and Game 3 vs. Vegas.
Gurianov was the hero in Game 5 of the West Final to clinch the Stars spot in the Cup Final.
The youngster from Finland -- Joel Kiviranta -- is pretty dang good, too.
However, the X-factor(s) for Dallas are the defensemen: Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg.
Heiskanen leads all defensemen with 22 playoff points. Klingberg ranks third with 16 points.
If the series features a few high-scoring games, which it assuredly will, the Stars will need to keep pace with a high-octane Lighting offense.
Dallas will lean on its power play efficiency and offensive output from the blueline.
If Heiskanen and Klingberg are on point -- pun intended -- the Stars have a great shot -- another pun! -- at winning the Cup.
The Stars have had the best power play in the NHL this post season -- 18 goals with a 27.3% conversion rate.
The Lightning, however, have just 10 power play goals with a 17.9% conversion rate.
Since the start of the "bubble" playoffs, the Stars are a perfect 5-0 in overtime/shootouts.
The Lightning, meanwhile, are 6-1.
Both teams are battle-tested so jumping out to an early lead will be critical.
The Stars have not scored a goal in the 1st Period since Game 1 of the West Final.
Alternately, they've allowed a whopping 22 goals in the opening period -- seven more than the next team (New York Islanders).
The Stars have become notorious for starting games poorly before rallying back to victory.
They truly are the "cardiac cats" of the 2020 Playoffs.
However, slow starts against this Lightning team are playing with fire.
The Stars went 2-0 vs. the Lightning in the 2019-2020 regular season -- both went to overtime.
Jan. 27 in Dallas -- F/OT: Stars 3, Lightning 2
Stamkos: 2 goals vs. Ben Bishop
Benn: 2 goals including game-winner in OT
Dec. 19 in Tampa - F/OT: Stars 4, Lightning 3
Tampa Bay: 2 power play goals vs. Khudobin
Seguin: game-winning goal in OT
In 2018-2019, the Stars went 0-2 vs. the Lightning. Khudobin started both of those games.
Dallas and Tampa Bay are not traditional American hockey cities, but they boasted two of the top five attendances in the NHL during the regular season.
Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final begins Saturday, 6:30 p.m. CT.