The well-rested Dallas Stars took it to the banged-up Tampa Bay Lightning with the play and physicality early and goaltender Anton Khudobin closed it out with 22 third-period saves to win Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final 4-1 on Saturday night.
Joel Hanley and Jamie Oleksiak continued the Stars' postseason trend of getting goals from defensemen, and second-round Game 7 hat trick hero Joel Kiviranta scored late in the second period to provide some breathing room. Khudobin continued to shine in his first playoffs as the starter, making 35 saves, some of them in spectacular fashion.
Khudobin was at his best in the third when the Lightning found their legs and tilted the ice toward him. He came up big on two penalty kills and strengthened his case for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Game 1 started out looking every bit like Dallas had four days off since winning the Western Conference final and Tampa Bay just one after clinching the East. The Stars, who grinded their way through the playoffs with tight-checking toughness, came out hitting, knowing the Lightning are not fully healthy.
Stars forward Blake Comeau hit 6-foot-6 Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman on one of the first shifts, and Kiviranta crushed top center Brayden Point into the boards to set up Hanley's first NHL goal of any kind. Defenseman Esa Lindell also got into the action early with Point, cross-checking him and leveling him in open ice.
Four of the Stars’ 25 first-period hits were on Point, who missed two games in the Eastern Conference final and is visibly playing through pain. No. 2 center Anthony Cirelli injured his right leg in the sixth game of that series 48 hours before this one started.
There was no rest for the weary Lightning, who were a step slow in the first couple of periods after failing to close out the New York Islanders in five and needing overtime to move on. The final still would have started two days later as the league tries to speed through the bubble playoffs and award the Stanley Cup, but they would've accumulated 73 fewer minutes of wear and tear.
Taking advantage of that was a point of emphasis for the Stars. Players could be heard yelling, “Hit 'em!" at points throughout the game in the empty arena as Dallas tries to wear down Tampa Bay much like St. Louis did to Boston in the final last year.
Much is different 15 months since the Blues won it all for the first time in franchise history. Dallas is trying for its first title since 1999 and Tampa Bay since 2004, though this Lightning core reached the final in 2015.
The series got under way with the Stanley Cup stationed rinkside inside the bubble parallel to the center red line. For all the usual tradition of the Cup only getting to the arena when a team has the chance to win it, playing without fans allowed the league to put it front and center for the players to literally see what they’re playing for.
The Cup was put away after the first period. It could be seen next when the series is over.
NOTES: Stars forward Roope Hintz left in the third period after blocking a shot. ... Jason Dickinson sealed it with an empty-netter with 1:18 left. ... Yanni Gourde scored Tampa Bay's only goal, and Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed three goals on 19 shots. ... Injured captain Steven Stamkos took part in the Lightning's morning skate and seemed to be skating well. General manager Julien BriseBois on Friday ruled out Stamkos for Game 1 but left open the possibility he could play this series. ... The Stars are more tight-lipped about injured forward Radek Faksa, defenseman Stephen Johns and goaltender Ben Bishop. Coach Rick Bowness continues to call all of them “unfit to play.”
Game 2 is Monday night at 8 p.m. EDT. Teams up 2-0 in the final have gone on to win 46 of 51 times.