QSAO’s Insights around the NHL: The stars align in the bubble – Previewing the weirdest Stanley Cup Final ever

By Constantine Maragos

Well, it is that time of year again; the NHL season has (finally) reached the Stanley Cups Finals.  

This postseason was as unpredictable as ever, which is exactly how we expected them to be. If you have been following my predictions over the course of the postseason, you will notice that I was a big Stars doubter. However, (and we will get into it later in this article) as soon as star wingers Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov met the tempo of the rest of their teammates, they dominated the competition. 

Not to mention, Anton Khudobin has been lights-out. I did not think Khudobin would sustain such performances heading into their Conference Finals series against the Knights, but he proved me wrong. Although, we cannot understate the apparent weight of the Demko Effect (we are looking at you Peter DeBoer).

I would also like to thank the Tampa Bay Lightning for eliminating the New York Islanders. I could not bear to live with a Stars-Islanders Final given my predictions. Nonetheless, the Lightning are the real deal. Despite New York\’s best efforts and some real injury concerns in this series (and these playoffs for that matter), the Bolts pulled through.

Now, with the crowning of hockey’s ultimate prize looming, the latest edition of QSAO’s Insights Around the NHL breaks down the play of our Cup finalists thus far, and previews what will be an exciting Stanley Cup Final. 

1. Conn Smythe Watch – Who steps up in the Cup Finals?

\"Photo

Photo credited to Getty Images

Anton Khudobin, Dallas Stars

Regardless of how these Stanley Cup Playoffs end, Anton Khudobin is due for a BIG payday. Through five games against the Golden Knights, Khudobin posted a 0.960 Sv% and 4.57 Goals Saved Above Average, which tops all starting goaltenders in the Conference Finals by a longshot. Khudobin had this series locked down from the get-go, coming up with key saves as soon as the puck dropped. 

Dobby’s play swung the momentum of this series for Dallas, as he was making key saves as soon as the puck dropped in Game One. One of Khudobin’s initial saves paved the way for John Klingberg’s eventual game-winner, on top of another heart-wrenching stop against Reilly Smith shortly after.

While the Stars’ ensemble has been able to deliver on the offensive side of the puck, Khudobin is this team’s rock, and they will not win the Cup without him. 

\"Photo

Photo credited to Christopher Hanewinckel — USA Today

Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars

As I have highlighted before, Miro Heiskanen’s job manning Dallas’ back-end has been a spectacle to watch. With 5 goals and 22 points in the postseason, Heiskanen leads defensemen in points and places third amongst active players. While Heiskanen’s possession numbers will look ugly, he has been a beast in the opponent’s zone, with 85 High Danger Scoring Chances at 5v5, the highest total amongst active skaters (min. 100 minutes played), and behind only Shea Theodore (100) overall. 

Despite this, Heiskanen’s deployment at even strength is still predominantly in the defensive zone, with 75 starts in the Stars’ faceoff circle. Heiskanen also leads the playoffs in TOI (514:46) and is one of two defensemen to log more than 500 minutes this postseason (Victor Hedman is the other, of course). It is an understatement to say that the Stars’ chances to win the Cup predicates on Heiskanen’s play in the bubble. It will be exciting to watch the 21-year old’s Stanley Cup Final debut he will be sure to deliver in a major fashion.

\"Photo

Photo credited to Getty Images

Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning

While still my favourite to win the Conn Smythe should the Lightning take it all, injury problems have set back Brayden Point’s campaign for playoff MVP ever so slightly. After picking up the injury in Game Two against New York, Point played a stint in Game Four, tallying a goal and an assist before sitting out Game Five, and eventually returning for their series-clinching victory in Game Six.

Point did note that he is willing to play “dinged up” in these playoffs, which means that we should expect to see him in the lineup come Game One against Dallas. Point’s 9 goals and 26 points place him 2nd in playoff scoring, behind only linemate Nikita Kucherov.

\"Photo

Photo credited to Getty Images

Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning

As I mentioned in my last articleVictor Hedman has been a monster in this postseason. While oft overshadowed by the likes of the aforementioned Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov, Hedman is the engine of this team. On top of his 9 goals and 15 points in these playoffs, Hedman led all players in ice-time in the Conference Finals, averaging 27:39 through their six-game series against the Islanders. 

Further, Hedman’s possession numbers are amongst the best in the Round Three, posting a 60.32 CF% in all situations, placing him first amongst defensemen (min. 60 minutes played). Not only did he dominate possession, but he also added several much-needed goals against the Isles, scoring game-tying goals in Games Two, Five and Six.  

What makes his two most recent goals interesting is that both encapsulate Hedman’s elite puck-moving abilities and game sense.

For his Game Five goal, the play begins in transition from the Bolts zone (where Hedman begins his stride up-ice at his own hashmarks), followed by a well-placed shot from forward Blake Coleman, leading to a tough rebound from Semyon Varlamov, and culminating in a thunderous blast by Hedman into the back of the net (where, if you notice, is scored at the Islanders hash marks).

In Game Six, while not completely shown in the video, the Bolts had three shot attempts before scoring, one of which was a blocked Hedman attempt, and another slick puck-moving effort by Tampa. Then, as shown in the video, Hedman immediately follows his pass to Erik Cernak to the net, eluding all five Islanders forwards (not something I thought I’d say these playoffs) into the slot to pop in another ugly Varlamov rebound. 

Again, I wanted to hammer home this point because it is astounding how Hedman can hold such a presence on the defensive side of the puck, yet be so shifty on offense, on and off the puck. I apologize for the impromptu deep-dive in this section, but I wanted to illustrate Hedman’s foundational role in the makeup of this Bolts team.

2. Rookie Report: Denis Gurianov & Joel Kiviranta strike again

\"Photo

Photo credited to Getty Images

Well, this Rookie Report is bittersweet for me because unfortunately, only five rookies are advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals.

On the other hand, two of those rookies are Denis Gurianov and Joel Kiviranta

The Stars’ young guns showed up again in Dallas’ Conference Finals series against the Vegas Golden Knights, as they conjointly tied and won the game for Dallas, both scoring back-to-back powerplay goals in their series-clinching Game Five. Gurianov made a smart pass to defenseman John Klingberg, who sent a wrister from the blueline into traffic, allowing Kiviranta to clean up the garbage in front of the net to tie the game. 

After an iffy delay-of-game penalty on fellow rookie Zach Whitecloud, it took the Denis Gurianov 1:21 on the powerplay to snipe the series-clinching goal off a one-timer from John Klingberg. While Gurianov and, to a lesser extent, Kiviranta came into Game 5 pointless in their previous four games, they chose to show up in this series at the best possible time. The rookie duo is a part of what has been a stellar depth performance from the Stars roster. 

The Stars also iced another rookie in these playoffs – Jake Oettinger, who made his NHL debut in relief for Anton Khudobin in Game Two. Oettinger is the first goaltender in 55 years to make his debut in Round Three of the playoffs. He stopped 5 shots in 17:09 of action. The playoff shutout streak begins!

A few other quick hits from the Conference Finals: A total of seven rookie skaters and one goalie played in the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, combining for 2 goals and 5 points. Along with Gurianov & Kiviranta, Golden Knights rookie duo Nicolas Roy and Zach Whitecloud were the only rookies to suit up for each of their team’s games in the third round of the postseason. Finally, 2018 12th overall pick Noah Dobson suited up for his first-ever playoff game, playing 12:55 in their series-losing contest against the Lightning. 

Before I finish this edition of the Rookie Report, I think a word needs to be said about the postseason that Zach Whitecloud had this year. 

I cannot recall seeing an individual playoff run with more ups and downs than Whitecloud this year. He scored his first career playoff goal, his second career playoff goal (top-shelf no less), took a tumble in Game Two against the Vancouver Canucks, and then another beating in Game Five. Unfortunately, Whitecloud ended his run with, as I mentioned before, an unlucky delay of game penalty which led to the Gurianov’s series-winning goal, which was tough to watch, to say the least. You have to feel for the guy.

However, Whitecloud played some serious minutes throughout the Golden Knights’ playoff run (he broke the 20-minute mark once this postseason, while also playing within a minute of that threshold on two other occasions) and showed he can compete on the NHL’s biggest stage.

\"GIF

GIF retrieved from Russian Machine Never Breaks

So for that, here’s to one of the wackiest playoff showings ever.

3. QSAO’s Stanley Cup Finals Preview

\"Photo

Photo credited to Getty Images

Tino’s Playoff Prediction Counter: 8/14 (57.14%)

I may as well lead this section off by saying that the Lightning have not let me down in these playoffs thus far — the Stanley Cup is theirs to lose.

No other team has dominated their competition as much as Tampa Bay has had. At even strength, they have controlled possession (55.59 Corsi For%), shot counts (54.84 Shots For%), and goal scoring (62.50 Goals For%) throughout the postseason. The Bolts also dealt with injury battles amongst their roster, namely playing without captain Steven Stamkos throughout the entirety of the playoffs, as well as Conn Smythe leader Brayden Point for a couple of games.

The Stars, on the other hand, are a different story, posting negative numbers in all three categories. Although, Dallas’ journey to the Stanley Cup Final has been arduous, to say the least. They came up against the two Western Conference (and Stanley Cup) favourites back-to-back in the Colorado Avalanche & Vegas Golden Knights, who made them work for their spot right now. Since their first-round series against the Flames, the Stars have only controlled over 55% possession at 5v5 once. As a matter of fact, in the nine games where they projected to lose at 5v5, the Stars won five of them.

There are three games I want to highlight in particular. In Game Four versus Colorado, the Stars controlled a measly 27.63% of possession, yet won 5-4 thanks to three powerplay goals. In Game Seven against Colorado, the Stars won on the back of two powerplay goals from Alexander Radulov to open the scoring and tie the game in the third period. In Game Four against Vegas, the Stars won off a Jamie Benn powerplay goal from the bumper.

With that said, Dallas’ special teams and goaltending have done a tremendous job to hamper their five-on-five deficiencies this postseason. Dallas has effectively the top powerplay in the postseason, scoring 18 goals on 66 opportunities (and timely ones at that), as well as an 83.33% success rate on the penalty kill. The issue that Dallas faces is that on top of the chances they leak at even-strength, they surrender a comparable amount of high-danger chances shorthanded as well.

Dallas’ top-four of Andrej Sekera & Esa Lindell Jamie Oleksiak & Miro Heiskanen, who also are utilized exclusively on the penalty kill, have surrendered 33 High-Danger Chances Against in 73:04, and 13 HDCA in 34:28 respectively. In comparison, Tampa Bay’s primary PK duo of Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak has only surrendered 12 HDCA in 41:25 of penalty-kill time. Again, that could be a symptom of playing against the Islanders’ impotent powerplay, but the direct comparison is a cause for concern heading into this matchup.

As I said before, goaltending has also been a major component of Dallas\’ success. Anton Khudobin is the rock of this team, and that cannot be stressed enough. Khudobin leads all netminders with 9.24 High-Danger Goals Saved Above Average in all situations, backing up the spectacular saves he has made in the bubble. But again, the Lightning have an answer for Khudobin in the form of Andrei Vasilevskiy. Here’s a head-to-head breakdown of their play in all situations:

\"Note

Note Vasilevskiy posted a -0.91 HDGSAA in all situations

\"Graphics

Graphics courtesy of Ryan Reid

As you can see, Vasilevskiy has been slightly better overall. However, considering the burden Khudobin has carried in deflecting the sheer volume of high danger chances the Stars have allowed is a commendable act in itself. 

Although I have a sense that the Tampa Bay Lightning’s offense may be the straw (or brick) that breaks the camel’s back in the Stanley Cup Final. With Dallas’ unfavourable 5v5 play and a formidable penalty-kill in front of them, I just do not see them winning this series, but it was fun to watch their run in the bubble. With that being said, my official prediction for your 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Champions is the Tampa Bay Lightning.

My Prediction: Tampa Bay Lightning

Statistics retrieved from ESPN.com, Natural Stattrick, NHL.com, Rotoworld.com

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *