This article is part of our Handicapping the NHL series.
After a month and a half of bubble hockey, the NHL playoff pool has been widdled down to just two teams. The Dallas Stars from the Western Conference and the Tampa Bay Lightning from the Eastern Conference. Let's dive into the path each team took to get to this point, what the oddsmakers are saying and which player might grab the Conn Smythe Trophy after a champion is crowned.
How They Got Here - Dallas Stars
The Stars pulled off just one win during the round-robin round, which landed them the No. 3 seed in the West, which led to a first-round matchup with Calgary. Dallas dispatched the Flames in six games and followed that up with a Game 7 victory over Colorado in round two. In the conference finals, Dallas made quick work of the Golden Knights, dispatching Vegas in just five outings with a Game 5 overtime clincher. With Ben Bishop (undisclosed) on the shelf, the club has relied on backup Anton Khudobin, who's sporting a 2.62 GAA and .920 save percentage through 19 games. Offensively, the team is being led from the blue line by Miro Heiskanen (22 points) while Denis Gurianov has been the club's top goal-scorer (nine goals). It will be the fifth trip to the Stanley Cup Finals for the Stars – the last time being 2000 when they lost to the New Jersey Devils – and a chance to secure just the second championship in franchise history.
How They Got Here - Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa fared slightly better in the round-robin clashes, winning two of three games and clinching the No. 2 spot in the East, leading to a meeting with the Columbus Blue Jackets. In a revenge matchup for the Lightning after being swept in four games last year, the Bolts closed out their first-round series convincingly in five games. The Bruins met a similar fate in round two, and the Islanders ended up being the only team to take Tampa into a Game 6, though it was the Lightning that came out on top with an overtime victory. Between the pipes, it has been Andrei Vasilesvkiy all the way as he has continued to roll with a .931 save percentage and 1.82 GAA in his 19 appearances. Without elite center Steven Stamkos (lower leg), the team has turned to Nikita Kucherov to lead the way in scoring (26 points) while Brayden Point and defenseman Victor Hedman top the goal list with nine tallies apiece. It will be the third trip to the Stanley Cup Finals for the Lightning – the last time being 2015 when they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks – and a chance to secure just the second championship in franchise history.
The Series by the Book
|Tampa Bay Lightning Outright Winner -186||Dallas Stars Outright Winner +150|
|Lightning to win 4:0 +750||Stars to win 4:0 +2000|
|Lighting to win 4:1 +400||Stars to win 4:1 +1100|
|Lightning to win 4:2 +390||Stars to win 4:2 +650|
|Lightning to win 4:3 +450||Stars to win 4:3 +650|
Based on the pricing provide by BetMGM, the Lightning appear most likely to close out the series in six games, which comes with its own odds of +200 for the series to end in exactly six games. In terms of picking a four-game sweep, it should be noted that no team has pulled off a sweep in the Stanley Cup Finals since 1998 when the Red Wings managed to send the Washington Capitals home in four games, repeating a similar route as in 1997 when they dispatched the Flyers in identical fashion.
Diving into the postseason stats, it's easy to see why the Lightning are favored when you consider they have the top-two postseason point producers in Kucherov and Point and are also fielding the top playoff netminder as Vasilevskiy leads the way in save percentage (.931). Still, the Stars won't roll over quickly as Khudobin is right behind Vasilesvkiy at .920 and Dallas has a power play that is converting at 27.3 percent, well above Tampa's 17.9 percent. The Lightning will no doubt continue to pepper Khudobin with pucks, as they're averaging 35.5 shots in the playoffs while Dallas is conceding 33.1 per game.
|Number of Shutouts||Games to go to Overtime|
|None -130||None +280|
|One Game +175||One Game +150|
|Two Games +750||Two Games +250|
|Three Games +1800||Three Games +750|
|Four+ Games +6000||Four+ Games +1800|
Considering the quality of the guys in the crease, it seems unlikely there won't be at least one shutout, though in a combined 38 outings the backstops have registered just three shutouts in the playoffs. Including the round-robin and play-in series, there have been 26 overtime games, including the series clinchers for both teams in the conference finals. The fact that two games going to overtime is more likely based on the odds than none speaks volumes regarding what you should expect in this series.
Recommendation: Everything points to the Lightning coming out on top in this series, but the Stars have already dispatched similarly deep and star-studded teams like Vegas and Colorado en route to the finals. At +150, the value will come by snagging Dallas which can be further compounded by taking them to win 4:2 at +650. Considering three of the last five Stanley Cup championships have been clinched in six games, the value makes sense to me. Finally, I would anticipate at least one dominant performance by a netminder, so I like one game to go to overtime at +175 and would probably consider taking three overtime games as a nice long shot at +750.
Conn Smythe Trophy
|Dallas Stars||Tampa Bay Lighting|
|Miro Heiskanen +250||Brayden Point +120|
|Anton Khudobin +350||Victor Hedman +225|
|Jamie Benn +1300||Nikita Kucherov +275|
|Joel Kiviranta +2000||Andrei Vasilevskiy +750|
|Denis Gurianov +2100||Ondrej Palat +2500|
The Conn Smythe Trophy is awarded to the most valuable player from the postseason. Not since 2003 has the award gone to a player on the losing side, which is why the Lightning players generally have better odds of winning than the Stars. In the last 10 years, only one blueliner has received the trophy, Chicago's Duncan Keith, which makes it all the more interesting to see Hedman and Heiskanen as the second and third best odds overall. In terms of netminders, it's also been eight years since Boston's Tim Thomas was named playoff MVP. Still, if Dallas lifts the cup, it will be hard to imagine anybody other the Khudobin receiving the honor, especially when you consider he's the No. 2 choice in goal for the Stars.
Recommendation: Since I'm already taking Dallas to win the series, I might as well double-down on my Conn Smythe winner. Barring Heiskanen registering a point-per-game pace in the finals, it's hard for me to see anybody on the Stars receiving this award other than Khudobin. If you prefer to take the Lightning side of the equation, the fact that Point has been dealing with a minor injury has me favoring Hedman, who I anticipate will continue producing at a high level in this series.