This was already going to be an unusual Stanley Cup, and it now has a matchup for all of those who like their games to be a bit defensive.
The Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning, two of the league’s southernmost teams playing for the title in a bubble in the NHL’s northernmost arena in Edmonton, have defensemen who provide plenty of points.
Is that defensive offense or offensive defense? Either way, they’ve done that and also been pretty good at what blueline players are primarily expected to do in shutting down the opponent.
“In today’s NHL you need that for your team to be successful,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said Friday. “You need that second wave of players joining the rush. … It’s something that we stress.”
Game 1 of the best-of-seven Stanley Cup is Saturday night, two days after Tampa Bay won the Eastern Conference in Game 6 against the New York Islanders. The Stars eliminated Western Conference top seed Vegas in Game 5 on Monday.
Tampa Bay veteran Victor Hedman, a fourth-time finalist for the Norris Trophy that goes to the league’s best all-around defenseman, is scoring postseason goals at a record pace. The Stars have Miro Heiskanen, who at barely 21 is already the highest-scoring defenseman ever in a postseason for his franchise.
“We’re not surprised,” Stars defenseman John Klingberg said. “Let Miro be Miro, and he’s going to take over games.”
Only Lightning forwards Nikita Kucherov (26 points) and Brayden Point (25 points), and Colorado center Nathan McKinnon (25 points in 15 games), have more postseason points than the 22 (five goals, 17 assists) by Heiskanen, the third overall pick in the 2017 draft.
Heiskanen and Klingberg (three goals, 13 assists), who has two game-winning goals, have outpointed some standout teammates: Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, who are primarily on the top line with captain Jamie Benn, and playoff veteran Joe Pavelski, who is in his first season with Dallas.
“It’s way easier to play with with five guys on the ice than three or two,” said Heiskanen, whose birthday was during the NHL’s 4 1/2-month pause because of the pandemic. “So it’s great to have the good D core, and let’s try to use it as much as we can, and just keep going there.”
Dallas defensemen have combined for 53 points (13 goals, 40 assists), the most during a postseason in history of the franchise in its first Stanley Cup Final since 2000. The previous mark was 47 (nine goals, 38 assists) in 1981 when the Minnesota North Stars lost in the final.
“Modern hockey, you create a lot of offense from the back end as well and you want to be able to have your Ds join the rush,” Klingberg said.
Tampa Bay defensemen have 46 points, and helped the Lighting go 10-2 in one-goal games this postseason. Since falling behind 1-0 in Game 4 against New York, they have allowed only three goals in more than 195 minutes.
“They have some big D, guys that can move and score,” Pavelski said. “You see what Hedman’s doing right now.”
The Stars are 1-0 in one-goal games, and held Vegas to two goals or fewer in each of their wins in the West final. They scored five goals in each of their four wins against Colorado.
Hedman, the 6-foot-6 Swede who was the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, had the only goal in regulation for the Lightning in their East-clinching 2-1 victory over the Islanders.
It was Hedman’s sixth goal in eight games and part of his NHL-best plus-19 rating since the season resumed. His nine goals are the most ever in a postseason for a Tampa Bay defenseman, the most in the NHL since Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers had 11 in 1994 and only three shy of the league record 12 by Edmonton’s Paul Coffey in 1985.
“I think any time he gets the puck, in his mind, he’s shooting it because he knows the kind of run that he’s on,” said fellow defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. “Whenever I get the puck at the blue line, I’m trying to find him as often as possible. … He’s doing it all right now.”
The Stars signed 14-year veteran Andrej Sekera as a free agent last summer, and he is finally in his first Stanley Cup Final with his fifth team. Their other defensemen who have played 20 games this postseason - Heiskanen, Klingberg, 2014 first-rounder Jamie Oleksiak and Esa Lindell - were all drafted by the Stars.
Shattenkirk, a free agency addition last offseason who is a plus-11 this postseason, and McDonagh are among four Lightning defensemen with at least 10 seasons of NHL experience now in their first Stanley Cup Final. The others are Zach Bogosian, the 12-year veteran who became available in February when Buffalo terminated his contract, and Luke Schenn.
“Everyone is obviously very hungry to go all of the way,” said Hedman, part of Tampa Bay’s loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final five years ago. “They’ve been in the league for a long time, and they haven’t been in this situation before. They’re super excited and played a huge part in why we’re here.”
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