EDMONTON — So, how are we going to play this?
In Game 1 the Dallas Stars called the tune, winning the first 40 minutes with their heavy, win-the-net-fronts game that made the Tampa Bay Lightning look slow and pushed their skill to the outskirts of the rink.
But by taking three minor penalties in the opening period of Game 2, the Stars surrendered control, allowing a power-play exhibition to erupt -- which is right up the Lightning’s alley.
What resulted was a 3-2 Tampa win, a series tied at one game apiece, and the beginning of that annual tug-of-war over which team is going to impose its style on this Stanley Cup Final.
“For sure,” agreed veteran Dallas centreman Joe Pavelski, who scored his 10th playoff goal on a dandy deflection. “There’s a couple of good teams that have somewhat of a foundation to win games, how you play. We were definitely closer to ours in Game 1, and we got away from it early in this game and it cost us. But there was no quit, and we started to find our game. It came back, and we need to stay at that level moving forward.”
And isn’t that always where the discussion goes? We start with how Tampa was able to wrest away the style of play from Dallas, and then we argue over exactly how long it lasted, until the Stars looked up at a 3-0 scoreboard in the second period and decided to make a game of it.
“It’s two very good teams battling it out. Who controls the puck the most comes back to faceoffs, and special teams were obviously the difference tonight,” said Stars head coach Rick Bowness, whose team has made a habit of over-utilizing the penalty box throughout this COVID Cup. “This is going to be a tough series. They’re an elite team. They’ve been here before. We’ve got a lot of guys who have never been here before. Hopefully we’re just going to keep getting better.”
Dallas had killed of five-straight Tampa power plays in this Final and had the Bolts top producers right where they wanted ‘em: Squeezing the sticks and feeling the pressure of a Cup Final that began with the Lightning leaders firing blanks.
Then, on the first power play of the game, Nikita Kucherov was a turnover machine, handling the puck more like a ham-and-egger than the player whose Hart Trophy reign had ended just before the game, when Edmonton Oilers star Leon Draisaitl was named the 2019-20 winner.
It looked like Tampa may have been stuck in Game 1 gear. So what did the Stars do?
They took another penalty. And another.
The cardinal sin when the opponent’s skill guys are rusty is to give them power-play touches. To allow them to start to feel good with the puck on their sticks again.
“When we stay out of the box we’ve seen … we’re a good team,” Pavelski said. “When you feed their top guys that kind of confidence, they play with the puck, they get a little momentum… We can kill one, two, three [penalties] a night. We don’t need to be killing three, four a period.”
Before the first period was out, Kucherov had set up Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat for power-play snipes, and when Kevin Shattenkirk’s long-range seeing eye shot found twine the Stars were down 3-0 at the first intermission.
“That’s where we lost the game today,” said Mattias Janmark. “We don’t want to take penalties. We have taken way too many throughout the playoffs.”
But don’t just blame the Stars. This is how a skilled team like Tampa turns the game back their way: They find a way to get on the power play, then they bury you with the man advantage.
Then you get tentative about taking penalties, and the extra half-second or six inches of ice that creates is what they use to beat you on the next shift.
“It’s easy to explain,” argued Bowness. “We lost faceoffs, we were turning the puck over and we were taking penalties. It was an even game up until we started taking penalties. Their power play connected.
“Faceoffs, turnovers and penalties. Things you can’t afford to do against a team like that.”
Here we go folks.
It’s now a best-of-five, and we’re looking forward to when it becomes a best-of-three.
Because whoever seizes controls of how this Final gets played, don’t worry. The other team will steal it back.