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The Stanley Cup final is set
For all the unprecedented weirdness of playing an entire NHL post-season in a bubble(s) during the summertime, it’s ending the same way it has for the last nine years now — with two U.S.-based teams playing for the Cup. An all-Sunbelt matchup was finalized last night when the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the New York Islanders in overtime of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final to earn a matchup with the Dallas Stars.
Here are a few things to know before the Cup final opens Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET:
The Lightning are on a mission. They suffered one of the biggest and most humiliating upsets in NHL history last year, getting swept in the first round by Columbus after rolling to one of the best regular seasons of all time. But Tampa Bay avenged that defeat by crushing the Blue Jackets in five games in the first round, then beating regular-season champ Boston in five before holding off the feisty Islanders.
Dallas isn’t supposed to be here. The Stars had the NHL’s 10th-best record in the regular season. They were favoured to beat Calgary in the first round of the playoffs, but pretty much everyone figured they’d lose to high-flying Colorado in the second. That nearly happened as Dallas threw away a 3-1 series lead before little-known Joel Kiviranta completed a hat trick in overtime of Game 7. The Stars were the underdog again in the Western final, and Vegas outplayed them for much of the series, but Dallas won four one-goal games (two in OT) to take it in five.
Tampa Bay is working overtime (literally). Great stat from CBC Sports’ Rob Pizzo in his latest two-minute NHL playoff recap video (see below): Dallas has played about 34 minutes of OT in these playoffs. Tampa? 185! That’s the equivalent of more than three whole games. On a possibly related note…
Tampa has more stars than the Stars. But they’re not all healthy. The biggest concern right now is Brayden Point. He’s tied for second in the playoff scoring race but missed Games 3 and 5 of the Eastern final (both Tampa losses). Point returned last night and played a robust 26 minutes, but he was in obvious discomfort at times with an apparent groin/hip/core injury of some sort. Luckily for the Lightning, they still have reigning NHL MVP Nikita Kucherov, who leads all scorers with 26 points in 19 playoff games. And Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman, whose nine goals put him just three behind Paul Coffey for the record by a defenceman in a single playoffs. And possible back-to-back Vezina winner Andrei Vasilevskiy, who’s playing brilliantly in net. But they don’t have captain and premier sniper Steven Stamkos, who has yet to dress in the playoffs and likely won’t in the final.
Some lesser-known Stars have stepped up. The two biggest names on the team are Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. The latter has a solid 18 points in 21 games, but the former is a ghost right now. Seguin has only two goals and six assists in 20 playoff games after leading Dallas (by far) with 50 points in 69 regular-season games. Injury info has been even tougher to come by in this year’s playoffs, but Seguin missed one of the Stars’ round-robin games in early August, so he might be dealing with something. Dallas’ playoff scoring leader (and answer to Hedman) is defenceman Miro Heiskanen, who has 22 points in 21 games — pretty much doubling his rate of production from the regular season. Denis Gurianov is also a pleasant surprise. He’s tied with gritty veteran Joe Pavelski for the team lead in goals with nine. Another key: Anton Khudobin is playing really well in net with No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop out with a mystery injury.
Both franchises are going for their second Stanley Cup. Tampa Bay won it in 2004 and lost to Chicago in the 2015 final. The Minnesota North Stars lost the ’81 and ’91 finals before moving to Dallas and rebranding. As the Stars, they won the 1999 Cup in controversial fashion over Buffalo, then lost the final to New Jersey the next year.
Tampa Bay is favoured to win the Cup. The series odds posted by the online bookmaker Pinnacle this afternoon implied the Lightning have a 64 per cent chance of taking it. Read more about the matchup here.
WATCH | CBC Sports’ Rob Pizzo discusses storylines heading into Stanley Cup Final:
Jamal Murray is back on the court tonight. Fresh off helping the Denver Nuggets rally from another 3-1 series deficit by scoring 40 points in a Game 7 upset of the Clippers, the young Canadian guard faces another tough test in the NBA’s Western Conference final. Denver’s opponent is the Los Angeles Lakers, who are led by one of the greatest players of all time in LeBron James and an MVP-calibre big man in Anthony Davis. L.A. is favoured, but the Nuggets have a puncher’s chance with Murray and their own elite giant — Nikola Jokic. Up here in Canada, we’re going nuts for Murray (and with good reason), but Jokic is Denver’s best player. The sweetest-passing big man in the game is putting up ridiculous numbers in this year’s playoffs: 25.4 points per game, 10.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists on a super-efficient 50.5 per cent shooting (including 44 per cent from three-point range). There’s no one quite like him in the NBA. Game 1 is tonight at 9 p.m. ET. The winner of this series will play for the title against either Boston or Miami. The Heat went up 2-0 last night with another close win.
Giannis Antetokounmpo got a nice consolation prize. For the second year in a row, his Milwaukee Bucks got bounced from the playoffs earlier than expected as the top seed. But Giannis won his second consecutive NBA MVP award today. The Greek star is only the second non-American to win it multiple times, joining Canada’s Steve Nash. And he’s only the third player in history to win both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season, joining Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. Read more about Giannis’ historic year here.
The only WNBA playoff team with Canadians on it advanced to the semifinals. The Minnesota Lynx survived their single-elimination showdown with Phoenix last night 80-79. Canadian forward Bridget Carleton came off the bench for Minnesota and played 25 minutes. She had three points, two rebounds, a pair of assists and a team-best +15 plus-minus rating. Canadian centre Kayla Alexander did not get into the game. Minnesota, which is seeded fourth, will now meet the No. 2 Seattle Storm, who had a bye for the first two rounds. So did the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces, who now face the No. 7 Connecticut Sun. Both semifinals open Sunday afternoon. They’re best-of-five series.
The Blue Jays got swept (big time) by the Yankees. New York’s 10-7 win last night made the aggregate score for the three-game series 43-15. It also gave the Yankees a 2½-game lead on the Jays for second place in the AL East, which gets you a playoff spot in this year’s expanded format. With only 10 days left in the season, Toronto can probably forget about catching the surging Yankees, who’ve won eight in a row, or first-place Tampa Bay, which is six games up on the Jays. But a wild-card spot is still very much theirs to lose. The Jays’ odds of making the playoffs are 97.1 per cent, according to ESPN’s model, because they just don’t have much competition for the second and final AL wild card. The closest team to them, Seattle, is 4½ games behind with 10 games left.
The Canadian Premier League final is tomorrow. Defending champion Forge FC (Hamilton, Ont.,) takes on HFX Wanderers FC (Halifax) in the title match for the CPL’s second season. Due to the pandemic, this one was condensed to five weeks and played in a bubble in Charlottetown. The league reported zero positive tests for COVID-19 since teams arrived in early August. Now the stage is set for a potentially dramatic ending. Both meetings between Forge FC and the Wanderers this year ended in a 1-1 draw. And if they’re tied at the end of regulation in the final, there’s no extra time — the championship will be decided by penalty kicks. Watch the match live Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on the CBC TV network, or stream it live on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app or CBC Gem. Read more about the matchup here.
Leo Komarov experienced the entire range of human emotions in one day. After his Islanders were eliminated from the playoffs in overtime (sadness, anger… relief?), the forward tweeted that his wife had given birth to their son that afternoon (joy, pride, anxiety… maybe regret for missing it?). Komarov also thanked Isles fans for their support, so throw gratitude in the mix. He hasn’t tweeted since, but with a newborn at home you can bet he’ll be on the emotional roller-coaster for a while.
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