The Stanley Cup isn’t often won by the team that played the best hockey during the regular season. Since the introduction of the Presidents’ Trophy in 1986, only eight teams that finished the season with the most points have gone on to lift the Cup at the end of the playoffs. That said, the Stanley Cup also isn’t often won by a team that ranks in the middle of the pack according to HockeyReference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS).1
The current iteration of the Dallas Stars doesn’t care much about historical precedent, though. The Stars finished the slightly truncated 2019-20 regular season with an SRS of 0.09, a mark that ranked 16th out of the league’s 31 teams. Since the lockout of 2004-05, no team has won the Stanley Cup after ranking lower than 13th in SRS.2 And yet, the Stars find themselves just three wins away from winning the second Stanley Cup in franchise history.
The Stars have their 1-0 series lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning thanks in large part to the Game 1 exploits of goaltender Anton Khudobin, who played about as well as he possibly could have. The Russian — affectionately referred to as “Dobby,” whose mask features the likeness of Dobby the House Elf from Harry Potter — saved 35 of the 36 shots he faced, several of which seemed impossible to stop until he stopped them. (This save was particularly exquisite. This sequence wasn’t bad either.) Eighteen of the 36 shots Khudobin faced came from below the top of the circle, and many of those came from the slot. Khudobin wasn’t just making stops on low-quality shots from the perimeter — he was stopping everything. It was an astonishing performance and a necessary one, given that the Stars were outshot 36 to 20 on the night. Dallas needed its goalie to come up big, and he seized the moment.
We recently pointed out that Khudobin’s overall playoff performance leading into to the Stanley Cup Final didn’t stack up to his career numbers in terms of quality start3 percentage because there is a direct link between quality start percentage and team success in the final. Since the 2007-08 season,4 only one team has won the Stanley Cup with a combined quality start percentage below 50 percent. For what it’s worth, the Stars’ combined quality start percentage in these playoffs still remains below 50, at 45.5 percent.5
Before the conference finals, Khudobin’s quality start percentage was just 38.5 percent. But “Dobby” flipped a switch against the Vegas Golden Knights — he stopped 95 percent of the shots he faced and posted a quality start in four of the five starts he made — and he’s been excellent so far against the Bolts, too. If Khudobin continues to play the way he’s played in his last six starts, no one will remember his first 13. Khudobin — who was something of a folk hero in Boston, where he served two stints as a backup for the Bruins — has become a bona fide legend in Dallas. A Cup triumph would only serve to bolster the Russian’s status in North Texas.
As for Tampa Bay, the Bolts are in danger of coughing away yet another golden opportunity to add to their trophy case. They had one of the best teams in league history a season ago, earning 128 points by winning 62 games, placing them in a tie with the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most regular-season wins in league history, but they were summarily swept aside in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs by a far less accomplished Columbus Blue Jackets team. In terms of epic collapses, they don’t get much more epic than that.
The Bolts weren’t as good this season as they were last — their points percentage was far lower, as was their SRS — but they were still among the best teams in the league. Much of their core remained intact, and they entered the playoffs with the best odds of lifting Lord Stanley’s Cup. This time around, the Bolts made quick work of the Jackets in the first round, vanquishing their old foe in five games. Tampa followed one dominant playoff performance with another, beating the Bruins in five games, including a 7-1 drubbing that seemed to break Boston’s spirit. The New York Islanders made things a bit trickier for Tampa in the Eastern Conference finals — the series lasted six games, and the Isles nearly forced a decisive seventh — but the Bolts have had an air of inevitability about them since the bubble began back in early August.
To be sure, Tampa didn’t do much wrong against Dallas in the offensive zone in Game 1. As noted above, they fired 36 shots at Khudobin, many of which were from dangerous areas. But an 0 for 4 performance on the power play highlighted a rare weakness in Tampa’s game, one that used to be a strength: In the playoffs, the Bolts are scoring on just 17 percent of their power plays, down significantly from their regular-season mark of 23.1. Sorting out their woes with the man advantage could be the key to the Lightning’s cup chances.
There’s word that Tampa could be getting team captain Steven Stamkos back at some point during the finals. Stamkos has been out for six months with a core muscle injury, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll be at his best after such a long layoff, but it can’t hurt to return a player who ranks third among active players in all-time power play goals — especially against a goalie who looked as impenetrable as Khudobin did in Game 1.