EDMONTON -- We have reached the crossroads of this Stanley Cup Final.
A rare back-to-back set that could swing the series in the Dallas Stars' favour, or perhaps even see the Tampa Bay Lightning crowned champions as soon as Saturday night. Regardless, it’s a 27-hour window after a 60-day marathon that will go a long way to determining how each of these groups remembers this experience.
The question we are asking entering Game 4 on Friday night is does Dallas have another level? Or, more specifically, can it take the dominant stretch it enjoyed for a wide swath of the first period Tuesday night and repeat it over a longer period of time to tie this series?
“There’s another level for us, bottom line. And it’s got to come from someone,” said veteran forward Joe Pavelski. “We’ve got to step up and be better.”
This is setting up as their moment of truth.
Dallas has ridden 34-year-old backup goaltender Anton Khudobin throughout this impressive playoff run and head coach Rick Bowness said Thursday that Ben Bishop remains “unfit to play.” Assuming that doesn’t change, playing both of the Friday/Saturday games would seem on the surface to be a greater challenge for Khudobin than Tampa’s 26-year-old starter Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Of course, there’s not much use in getting too far ahead of yourself with no more than four games left to be played inside the NHL bubble.
“Right now there’s one game on our mind and that’s the next one,” said Pavelski. “It’s a key moment in the series -- you know, 2-2 looks way better than 3-1 and then after that, we can figure out how to recover and get back.”
The heat is being turned up on the Stars' top-paid players, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, neither of whom have broken through with a goal against the Lightning. Alexander Radulov took two minor penalties during the Game 3 loss and also hasn’t scored a goal in the series.
Bowness is taking some comfort in the opportunities those players have had to score, but understands that we’re at the stage where results will carry the day. His team has been outplayed at 5-on-5 through three games of this series and it’s been on the wrong end of the special teams battle so far, too.
They need someone to deliver a moment like the one Steven Stamkos authored for the Lightning in Game 3. His goal galvanized the entire bench and strengthened the resolve. Something from Seguin or Benn could go a long way to helping Dallas punch back.
“We’re seeing some encouraging signs,” Bowness said of his top forwards. “They’re generating really quality chances and you’ve just got to hope that one of those is going to in and that’ll take a lot of the stress off them for sure.”
Added Pavelski, who has 10 goals in these playoffs and one in this series: “We need better details, more production. We’re trying to find wins right now.”
They’re running short on time to chase them down.
This back-to-back set will be the first in the Stanley Cup Final since Games 1 and 2 of the 2009 series between the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins. Add it to the list of unusual things 2020 has brought us.
Bowness has spoken openly about the mental challenges that have come from spending nearly nine weeks in Edmonton’s JW Marriott, and says that it remains an ongoing battle even with the chance to lift the Stanley Cup so close.
The unique circumstances of this tournament have made both of these teams better, more cohesive versions of themselves. They’ve been tested time and again and found their way through.
“I’m very proud of our guys, they’ve handled this incredibly well,” said Bowness. “Our guys bought in before we got here and they’re still buying in. There’s going to be lapses and some of it, it’s mental fatigue, there’s no question about that.
“We’ve got to overcome it.”
“Tight-knit is an understatement,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of his 52-person travelling party. “The group, I mean everybody, they’d lay in traffic for each other.”
They’ve got to lay it all out there now. Two games, two days and a whole lot riding on the outcome.