It’s not only two American Sunbelt teams facing off Saturday in the NHL’s Stanley Cup final, it’s also a matchup of two head coaches who once worked together, but with the student now trying to outshine the mentor.
Dallas Stars head coach Rick Bowness was an associate coach for five years with the Tampa Bay Lightning alongside head coach Jon Cooper until leaving in 2018.
Bowness, with five decades of coaching in the NHL, gets a chance to win the Cup for the first time as head man in the final, which will be held in front of no spectators at Rogers Place
But first he has to get by Cooper.
Cooper recalled hiring Bowness when he got the head job in 2013.
“It was about bringing somebody in that knew the league and, honestly, could work a little bit as a mentor for myself, and that’s what I personally wanted. I searched everywhere and was very fortunate to run into Rick Bowness,” Cooper told reporters on a Zoom call Friday.
“I learned so much from him, just about how the league works and how to have success.
“We spent a decade together and we had some pretty good runs, especially the one in 2015, (Tampa lost to Chicago in Stanley Cup final) and Bonsey was a big part of it.”
Cooper said the parting was “amicable” in keeping with the quicksilver nature of the league where coaches come, go, switch, return, retire, and un-retire but added, “I’m probably not sitting here today without a lot of the help of Rick Bowness.”
Bowness vs. Cooper is just one of multiple storylines in this final chapter of the NHL’s surreal season of COVID-19, where, in a matchup of citrus versus cactus, teams from cities that never see snow will do battle in an empty rink on the bald Canadian prairie in September to determine the champion of a traditional winter sport.
Both teams are dealing with some past adversity. The Lightning set records last year racking up 62 wins and the President’s Trophy only to get humiliated by the Columbus Blue Jackets and swept in the first round last season.
Since then, Tampa general manger Julien BriseBois has added some grit to the roster in veterans like Zach Bogosian, Kevin Shattenkirk, Luke Schenn and Pat Maroon while beefing up the second line with Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow.
That builds on the core of high flying scorers like Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat and Victor Hedman, backstopped by Andrei Vasilveskiy in net.
Their best players have been just that this post-season. The top line of Palat, Point and Kucherov has 23 goals and 64 points in 19 games to lead the Lightning past the Blue Jackets, Boston Bruins and New York Islanders.
“We’re a different team,” said Hedman.
“We have different bodies in the lineup. We’re a better team, I think.
“Columbus got to us in the playoffs (in 2019), and if you’re not ready it could be an early exit, and that was what happened to us. But I think we put that behind us pretty quickly. We learned from it. We took that experience, and you don’t want to feel that feeling again.”
They have also done it without star captain Steven Stamkos. Stamkos underwent core muscle surgery on March 2 and hasn’t played since. He is skating in practice in Edmonton.
The Dallas franchise which began life as the Minnesota North Stars in 1967, has won it all once — in 1999 — but had not been back to the Stanley Cup final until now.
The Stars had a rough start to this season, winning one of their first nine games, then saw head coach Jim Montgomery summarily fired in December and replaced by Bowness.
Dallas finished 10th in the league standings (37-24-8) when the regular season was halted March 12 due to COVID-19 (Tampa was fourth at 43-21-6).
The Stars and Lightning played each other twice in the regular season, with Dallas winning both times in overtime (3-2 and 4-3)
Dallas’s success starts with goalie Anton Khudobin.
The 34-year-old career journeyman backup has found his stride in the playoffs replacing the injured Ben Bishop. He is 12-6 in 18 starts and saved the team’s bacon in the last round against the Vegas Golden Knights, stopping 153 of 161 shots (.950 save percentage) as Dallas outscored Vegas 9-8 in five games but won the series 4-1.
In the last two rounds, against Colorado and Vegas, the Stars have been outshot to 415 to 338 while the goals have been even, 37 to 37.
Dallas general manager Jim Nill has also added sandpaper and playoff experience to his lineup with veterans Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry.
The offensive punch has come from defenders Miro Heiskanen, just 21, and John Klingberg (eight goals and 32 points combined) and captain Jamie Benn (8 goals, 18 points).
The Stars will need continued heroics out of Khudobin and more production out of first line centre Tyler Seguin if they want to beat the Bolts. Seguin was the team’s top scorer in the regular season (17 goals, 50 points) but in the bubbled playoffs has just 2 goals and 8 points 20 games.
“They have an unbelievable goalie. They’re well coached, so we definitely have our hands full.”
Watch below: Some videos about the 2020 NHL playoffs.