One of the most unusual seasons in the NHL’s 103-year history could wrap up tonight. If the Tampa Bay Lightning win Game 5, they will hoist the Stanley Cup — in an empty arena, in a bubble.
As for the Dallas Stars? They need to dig deep for a miracle to extend this 2019-20 season just a tad bit longer.
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Game 5: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 3-1) | 8 p.m.
It all boils down to this: the Lightning have a chance to hoist the Stanley Cup on Saturday in Edmonton. The Stars need to win out to save their season. The drama is rich, but the turnaround is short, as we have an unusual back-to-back set of games in this Stanley Cup Final schedule. And naturally, because it’s 2020, Friday night’s game went to overtime, meaning the teams have just about 20 hours to recover.
The Stars had gripes about the officiating in Game 4. They’re a very good team whose fatal flaw could be how many penalties they’ve taken this series. Dallas has been great at 5-on-5 in the Cup Final, but has been torched by Tampa Bay’s special teams. The Lightning are in a stretch where they’ve gone 6-for-12 on the power play and 13-for-14 on the penalty kill.
But even as exciting as the last three games have been for the Lightning, they have a business-like approach. “If you were in our locker room after [Game 4], we’ve won 15 games in this bubble and I would say this was one of the ones where they weren’t fired up. It was like laser focus,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “They came here to do something.”
Question of the day: Will we see either Ben Bishop or Steven Stamkos in Game 5?
Let’s begin with Stamkos, who made his postseason debut in Game 3 — a moment that’s sure to go down in Stanley Cup lore, should the Lightning win. The captain scored a goal on his first shot, but played less than three minutes after experiencing an “issue.” He sat on the bench for the second and third period, then was deemed “unfit to play” in Game 4. The Lightning, however, didn’t rule Stamkos out for the rest of the playoffs, so there is some intrigue.
That said, it would be highly surprising if Stamkos dresses for Game 5.
As for Bishop? Stars coach Rick Bowness didn’t want to give anything away regarding his plan for goaltending during the back-to-back set, but the coach has a decision to make. Anton Khudobin has appeared in 20 straight games, and started 23 overall in the bubble. Though his stats have dipped a bit in the Stanley Cup Final — he has a .862 save percentage in Games 2 through 4 — Khudobin has battled hard.
With the season on the line, it makes sense to turn back to Khudobin, who has led them this far. But he’s also 34 years old and maybe showing a bit of wear after overuse this summer. The Stars could start rookie Jake Oettinger, who before this summer had zero games of NHL experience. That is likely not going to happen.
They could, however, go back to Bishop, their No. 1 this season. Bishop rushed himself back too soon in the Colorado series — to disastrous results — and as of Thursday, he was still considered “unfit to play.” However, he has been skating with teammates and was part of the morning skates observed by reporters in Edmonton. It’s not unreasonable to think he may suddenly be “fit” on Saturday.
Three players to watch
Andrei Vasilevskiy, G, Tampa Bay Lightning
While there is plenty of scrutiny on the Dallas goaltending decision, the answer for Tampa Bay is clear: the 2019 Vezina Trophy winner obviously gets the start. It’s a huge moment for the 26-year-old. He gets the chance to win his first Stanley Cup, and though he’s been terrific all postseason, he’s coming off a shaky start to Game 4.
Brayden Point, F, Tampa Bay Lightning
If we’re looking for an overall MVP of the bubble, Point would have a good case. The 24-year-old has had some monster nights this summer (including another one in Game 4) to pace Tampa Bay’s sizzling hot first line.
There has been speculation Seguin has been managing a wrist or hand injury, which is one way to explain his lack of production his summer. However, Seguin appeared much more engaged in Game 4, with a high-effort plays to assist on goals by Corey Perry and Joe Pavelski.
Stats of the day
The historic and current trends are both with the Lightning. Teams that have taken a 3-1 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final have won 33 of 34 times since the best-of-7 format began in 1939 (97.1%).
Oh, and teams that take a 3-1 series lead during the 2020 postseason? They are 12-0.
Social post of the day
Even if Stamkos only sees the ice for three minutes this summer, he’s had a major impact behind the scenes.
Gotta get those Stammer hugs right away. 🤗 #StanleyCup pic.twitter.com/q8680Mkqvl
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) September 26, 2020