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Stanley Cup Final preview: Lightning vs. Stars matchup, series pick



So here we have it, a Stanley Cup being awarded in September. In a bubble. It will be either the Tampa Bay Lightning (whose only Cup win came back in 2004) against the Dallas Stars (lone Cup in 1999). It’s the first time two Sun Belt teams have faced off in the Final.

The Lightning — looking to become the first preseason Stanley Cup favorites to win it all since the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015 — started the season slow, then became the top offensive team in the regular season. If they win the Cup, they will have defeated the No. 1 defensive team (the Boston Bruins) in the league — as well as No. 2 (Stars), No. 3 (Columbus Blue Jackets) and No. 9 (New York Islanders). Not shabby, especially for a team that has been playing without captain Steven Stamkos all summer. GM Julien BriseBois said there’s still a possibility Stamkos plays in the Final, but he will not dress for Game 1. Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov have more than shouldered the load atop the lineup, while Tampa Bay rebounded from its embarrassing playoff exit last season by adding physical players such as Zach Bogosian, Patrick Maroon and Blake Coleman — while also adopting a grittier mindset. The Lightning have yet to lose consecutive games all postseason.

“I’m excited for our players because this journey, especially after what happened last year and how we kind of took it on the chin, and rightfully so,” coach Jon Cooper said. “We deserved to take it on the chin. But to counter punch like we have this year, good on those guys.”

The Stars’ path this season hasn’t been linear either. After an encouraging playoff run in 2019, the veteran Stars began the season sluggish, going 1-7-1. They found their winning ways, then in December second-year coach Jim Montgomery was fired, and later went to alcohol rehabilitation. Rick Bowness, who has coached in 2,266 games and been on an NHL bench in five decades, took over. He is the NHL’s oldest coach at age 65. The Stars have been adaptable under Bowness. They found their offense in a second-round series against Colorado, scoring 28 goals in the seven-game series. They then tightened things defensively and stymied the Golden Knights’ forwards in the Western Conference finals.

It has been a wild ride for the Stars, who have cycled through four coaches since 2017 and have been on the cusp several times during the Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin era, but also have had a handful of low moments. It was just 22 months ago that the Stars’ president went on a profanity-laced rant lamenting the highly paid duo’s lack of production. Now they’re four wins away from a championship.

“We’ve been through a lot of stuff,” Seguin said. “A lot of things have been said about us, and said about him. Now we’re in this moment, and we have a great opportunity in front of us to prove a lot of people wrong.”

What would a Stanley Cup mean to them?

“Obviously, the world,” Benn said. “This is why you play the game.”

Let’s compare the two teams in six categories, and make a prediction as to who will raise the Stanley Cup this year.

First line: Coach Rick Bowness reunited his big three — Benn, Alexander Radulov and Seguin — on the top line. While the Stars have made it this far with Seguin scoring only two goals in 20 games, the 31-year-old Benn is playing some of the best hockey during his 11-year Stars tenure (18 points in 21 games, including three goals and two assists in five games versus Vegas). According to Natural Stat Trick, the trio has an expected goals for percentage of 68.75%. Tampa Bay has been rolling out Ondrej Palat, Point and Kucherov, which has been one of the most dominant lines in the entire playoffs. Tampa Bay’s top trio has scored 21 goals, and they’ve been on the ice for six against — outshooting opponents 193-95. They have an expected goal percentage of 77.78%, according to Natural Stat Trick. It is worth monitoring Point’s injury status, as he was banged up in the Conference finals, which forced him to miss two games. Advantage: Lightning

Forward depth: The Lightning’s second line of Anthony Cirelli, Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn has looked off at times this postseason; they’ve been on the ice for just one goal for and six against. The Stars have two streaking players on the second line: Denis Gurianov and Joe Pavelski, who each have nine goals. That’s huge for Pavelski, who scored just 14 goals all regular season. After 1,030 career games, Pavelski is hungry for his first Stanley Cup. The Stars’ lineup is filled with opportunistic players (look no further than cult hero Joel Kiviranta), but the depth in Tampa Bay’s bottom five (it has been typically dressing only 11 forwards and seven defensemen) can easily match it. Tampa Bay’s improved third line — featuring trade deadline acquisitions Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, and centered by Yanni Gourde — has been especially good, outscoring teams 10-5 while playing a physical game. Advantage: Tie

Defense: The Stars’ top two right side defensemen, John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen, have been spectacular all summer. Heiskanen is a legitimate Conn Smythe Trophy candidate, averaging 25 minutes per game, with 22 points in 21 contests. “He makes it seem effortless when he skates up and down the ice,” said the Lightning’s Victor Hedman, the Conn Smythe front-runner on the Tampa Bay side. Hedman has been a workhorse this summer (26:31 per game) while scoring nine goals — the most of any defenseman in a single playoff since Brian Leetch in 1994. “It’s just unbelievable how well he plays,” Tampa Bay’s Mikhail Sergachev said of Hedman. “Sometimes you can play 30 minutes and do nothing, and he’s doing everything for us.”

Though Dallas clamped down defensively against Vegas, and can be a heavy, physical team to get past, analytics suggest the defense has taken a step back this summer. The Stars’ expected goals against per 60 minutes at even strength has gone from 2.33 in the regular season to 2.49 in the postseason, while Lightning have gone from 2.46 to a 1.66, according to Natural Stat Trick. Tampa Bay also has the edge in third-pairing defenseman, while Dallas has been dipping into its “Black Aces” pool. Advantage: Lightning

Goaltending: We have two Russian goalies who have carried their teams here, both making 19 starts this summer. The Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, and is up for the award again this season. The 26-year-old leads all goalies this summer with 14 wins (and just five losses), along with a .931 save percentage and 1.82 goals-against average. “He’s the best goalie in the league,” Hedman said. “No questions asked.” The 34-year-old Khudobin has had a career far more traveled — but in his 11 NHL seasons, he has always been the understudy, never the star. But with Ben Bishop injured, Khudobin has his opportunity with the Stars — and is making the most of it, especially in the conference finals against Vegas in which he posted a .950 save percentage. His numbers are slightly lesser than Vasilevskiy’s this summer but still impressive: .921 save percentage, 2.14 GAA and one shutout. Advantage: Lightning

Coaching: For the first time in Stanley Cup history, a head coach is facing off against one of his former assistants in the Stanley Cup Final. Rick Bowness spent five years on Tampa’s bench under Jon Cooper, before he left in 2018. Bowness is an NHL lifer who is looking for perhaps his last shot at glory. Cooper will always have the reputation as a good regular-season coach until he can take a team over the hump. While they know each other’s styles well, they’re both apt at making necessary adjustments. Advantage: Tie

Special teams: Dallas has the fifth-best power play this summer (27.3%), which was also an area of strength during the season. Tampa Bay’s power play has been in a bit of a funk, including going 0-for-5 in their last game. Overall the Lightning are 12th on the man advantage this summer (17.9%). The penalty kills are quite similar this summer: Dallas has the ninth-best penalty kill (83.3%), while the Lightning are eighth (83.6%). Advantage: Stars

Prediction: Lightning in seven. Since 2016-17, no team in the NHL has won as many games as the Lightning (201). Tampa Bay has been on the cusp, and set regular-season records, but finally this year seems to have put it all together. As long as Point stays healthy in this series, the Lightning’s depth should be the difference-maker. Expect this to be a physical, exciting series.


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast


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