Tampa Bay is the favourite on paper, but can Dallas pull off an upset?

In theory, the Tampa Bay Lightning are head and shoulders above the Dallas Stars. In theory.

Some other theories that I, and many other analysts, have had:

• The Colorado Avalanche are head and shoulders above the Dallas Stars.

• The Vegas Golden Knights are head and shoulders above the Dallas Stars.

And let’s be real, a number of people thought the Flames would get the better of the Stars, too. I wasn’t among them there, but I’m guilty of the first two. So, I’ll try to keep that in mind when going through just how lopsided this series looks, because it seems most of us are missing something about that group there under Rick Bowness. They certainly compete at a high level.

The main reason I expressed doubt about Dallas in the previous series was that I didn’t think they could continue to rely on getting goal scoring from curious places (like Joel Kiviranta, the Game 7 hero against Colorado), and I wasn’t sold that Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn were suddenly going to find their old prolific goal scoring ways.

Seguin proved me right there, tallying a single assist in five games against the Golden Knights (commence injury speculation), but Benn was arguably the Stars' -- and maybe the series’ -- best player. He had five points over five games, including three goals.

The Stars, however, only scored nine times in five games, yet kept enough pucks out of their own net to find their way through.

It’s that goal-scoring that I still believe is going to come back and bite them, as I don’t believe their offensive explosion against the Avs is the real Stars team. They may not be the 1.8 goals-per-game team like they were against Vegas, but they were 26th in regular season offence, scoring just 2.58 goals per game. Even if you think that’s low for what this team is now, they aren’t going to be much better than that with the same personnel.

That contributes to the big problem for them, which is that the formula they’ll run with will be to play low event hockey, keep the scores tight, and hope to persevere in some tight contests. That’s recently served them well.

The only thing is, that’s all Tampa Bay has seen through the post-season, and they’ve just eliminated three teams from that mold.

The Columbus Blue Jackets were the third-best team in the NHL in goals against per game. Tampa didn’t score much, sure, but it didn’t matter -- they were sound enough defensively to beat them. The Boston Bruins were the best defensive team in the league this year. Tampa scored 3.8 per game against them. The Isles were another top-10 defensive team, ninth-best in the league, and Tampa still put away 3.3 goals per game against them. (League average was 3.02 goals per game, for reference.)

You’ll notice those goal totals for Tampa are decent, but not overwhelmingly good for a team that led the league with nearly 3.5 goals for per game this season. In each case though, it was their opponents who couldn’t create enough offence.

The Blue Jackets can’t score. They were 28th in the league in goals for. Even though they defended well, they couldn’t score enough to beat Tampa. The Islanders were 22nd in the league in goals for. Even though they defended well, they couldn’t score enough to beat Tampa. The Bruins were ninth-best league wide, and similarly, they didn’t have enough firepower to take down the Bolts, scoring just two goals per game against them.

The Lightning, for all their offensive gifts, also kept their goals against this year at 2.77, a number bested by only six teams this season.

So, the Dallas Stars -- on paper! -- are just more of what the Lightning have already seen. They’re a good defensive team with a bottom-third offence that’s going to try to squeeze the life out of them and the game in general. On any normal day, I think you’d see it’s unlikely to happen, and that Tampa is in fact head and shoulders above the Stars.

ALAS.

Alas, doing hockey predictions is never as simple as guessing who’s going to win the computer simulation of the game, as the human element plays a huge factor in determining real life outcomes. And a very real thing is that Tampa Bay has some excellent players who are very hurt.

Tampa Bay lost two games when Brayden Point didn’t play last round, and I just can’t see him playing every game in the Final. He looked so badly injured at multiple points of Game 6 versus the Islanders, occasionally working on his groin on the bench between shifts to keep it useable. He’s a huge driver for that team.

Anthony Cirelli got hurt and managed to finish Game 6 for the Bolts, scoring the winner in OT. But hockey injuries almost always feel worse the next day. Even if he plays, how close to his best can he be? And of course, there’s no guarantee Steven Stamkos makes it back at all.

The Stars are nursing a number of nagging injuries as well, rumours have it, and that’s to be expected at this time of year. But a few days off should go a long way for them there, so I expect them to have a leg up in Game 1, the way the Bolts had the leg up on the Islanders in the previous series.

In the end, the Stars are a team that makes you beat them. They defend hard, and make you go through them. If you’re not at your best, the Stars just find ways to persevere. They seem motivated, with a number of veteran players who are just dying to break through and win the big one here. They aren’t the more talented team, but they are 18 skaters deep with a goalie playing well, so nothing comes easy against them. That’s a dangerous combination in hockey.

Some notes:

• Both goaltenders have been wonderful so far in the post-season. Andrei Vasilevskiy has a .931 save percentage in the playoffs, and Anton Khudobin has a .920. If either of them falls off, none of the above matters. I don’t expect either of them to fall off, though. (Bettors feel free to read that as “take the under”.)

• Dallas is the most penalized team in the post-season, and the Lightning are capable of punishing on the power play. The Stars will likely try to slow things down through all means -- it’ll be up to the refs to call that, and up to Tampa Bay to make it count if it does get a little grabby.

• Point’s Conn Smythe case is, to me, strengthened by missing two games, given the Lightning lost them both. Staying on the Tampa side, Victor Hedman has certainly made a strong case too. I have Khudobin as the front-runner for the Stars.

In the end, this comes down to two things: Can Tampa Bay stay healthy enough to roll out the oft-dominant team we’ve come accustomed to seeing, and can Dallas find a way to score?

If the first one happens, I’m skeptical enough of the second to think the series could be fairly short. And since injuries are tough to predict, I’ll make my pick as if they stay healthy: I think the Tampa Bay Lightning win the Stanley Cup on Saturday, September 26, after Game 5. Right here on Sportsnet.

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