When the NHL held its media day for the two teams in this year’s Stanley Cup Final, players, coaches and management personnel were all paraded in front of the bank of microphones to answer questions from the credentialed media.
Players, as expected, said all the right things. How much they respect the other team; how video they have seen of their opponent shows no glaring weakness. Coaches had high praise for both the other team’s players as well as the coaching staffs.
Hell, even Steve Yzerman completely downplayed any comparison of Chicago captain, Jonathan Toews to himself by saying that Toews is “bigger, stronger, better” and that he is a “complete player”.
There was no bulletin board material within 10 miles of Amalie Arena. This is a good thing and bodes well for both teams letting the play on the ice tell the story. With that in mind, here are the five keys to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Power play units against penalty kill teams. When one team has a man advantage, the big hulking thing lurking in the corner is something called momentum, which can swing a game to one team’s favor. Scoring any goal will bring that juice to your team as will killing off a penalty, regardless of the score at the time. Do that, and the energy is on your side.
The good news for both teams is that they both have stepped up their production with the extra man. During the playoffs, Tampa is scoring at 22.2% or a 3.4 percentage point increase while Chicago has upped its production by two percentage points to 19.6%.
The other side of the special teams coin is penalty kills. For the regular season, these two teams were in a virtual tie on the PK. Tampa closed at 83.7%, good for 9th in the NHL while Chicago ended 10th in the league with 83.4% effectiveness in killing penalties.
During the post season, Tampa has dropped a couple of points but is still killing 81.1% of the penalties they are committing. Chicago on the other hand, has dropped almost eight percentage points killing only 75.5% of their penalties. Perhaps it’s the result of the high number of minutes played by their top four defensemen.
Which goalie sets the early tone in the series? Home ice should play a factor as Tampa had the best home record in the regular season. However, Chicago was one of the best road teams all year.
The key here will be the play of the men in front of their respective goalies. Which team will block more shots? Who is going to lay it on the line and get in front of a slap shot going 100 MPH or more?
Whichever team plays better in front of their net minder should win Game 1 handily. It can be argued that Ben Bishop just beat the two best goalies in the world in the last two series in Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist.
Conversely, Corey Crawford already has his name etched on the most famous trophy in the world. A lot has been mentioned about Chicago’s top four defensemen and the high amount of minutes played in the Western Conference Final series against Anaheim. How much of a physical toll has that taken?
Just a small reminder to Chicago fans: Antti Niemi. Niemi won a Cup playing for the Blackhawks in 2010 in what was his first playoffs as a number one goalie. This is Bishop’s first time in the playoffs as any team’s number one goalie. To his credit thus far, Bishop has won two road games in Detroit, two road games in Montreal and three in Madison Square Garden.
Throughout the season, one of the analysts for the Lightning, Chris Dingman, has said as the Triplets Line developed that opposing coaches have to “pick their poison” in defensive coverage. Most coaches put their best defensive pairing up against the Steven Stamkos line.
As Stamkos finished second in the NHL in goals, the argument can be made that the strategy of stopping Tampa’s number one line simply didn’t work. However, the decision by most coaches to stop Stammer, led to the success of the Triplets as most teams did not have another defensive pairing up to the task of stopping these three young and exciting players.
So, how will Joel Quenneville play this situation? Does he put his captain, Jonathan Toews and his line on the Triplets? Toews can shut down any line in the NHL but his is one line. Who ends up stopping the other line? What caused some consternation on the Chicago bench at times during that Western Conference Final against Anaheim was the play of some third and fourth liners like Nate Thompson, Matt Belesky, Jakob Silfverberg and Andrew Cogliano.
So, as Dingman would say, pick your poison. Do you choose to stop the Stamkos line or the Triplets? In the Eastern Conference Final, New York coach Alain Vigneault chose to stop the Triplets which proved ineffective as they totaled 24 points. The downside for the Rangers was that Stamkos, Alex Killorn and Valtteri Filppula began to heat up and torched New York for nine goals and 10 assists in addition to the production of the Triplets. Chicago will be able to shut one of these lines down, but not the other.
These fresh legs will help the Lightning provide the play in front of Bishop he needs. Chicago will score goals. By employing the seven defensemen, Jon Cooper hopes to neutralize the offensive production of the Blackhawks, especially by the third and fourth lines.
Chicago and Tampa play a similar game. Both are fast and rely on quick outlet passes to get their speedsters on a two on one or three on two breakaway. Both teams excel in the neutral zone. Marian Hossa is an amazing back checker. Watching him over the years, it is difficult to ever recall a time Hossa ever gave up on a puck that was on an opponent’s stick. While not as big a household name as Hossa; Ondrej Palat plays a similar and effective back checking game as Hossa. To make it easier for Blackhawk fans, think Hossa 2.0 or Hossa but 10 years younger.
Because both teams have been through three series and have come out ready to play for the Cup, there aren’t going to be many surprises for either team. What will make a difference in Game 1 will be the play by each team in the neutral zone.
It will determine who wants the first victory on the road to four. Which team will own play in the neutral zone, thereby making entry into the offensive zone difficult? Quick two line passes to a speeding forward seem to be part of each team’s game plan. The team that can control the neutral zone will increase their chances of winning Game 1 and perhaps the series.
Anyone who saw the first three minutes of the final game in the Western Conference Final knows that Joel Quenneville won that game with the simplest of moves. Perhaps that is why his name is engraved twice on the Cup.
In the NHL, the home team has last line change. So, when the puck dropped in the do or die final game in Anaheim, Quenneville immediately changed lines taking out the Toews line who was matched up against Anaheim’s second line centered by Ryan Kesler.
This move seemed to befuddle Anaheim’s coach Bruce Boudreau and two minutes later, Jonathan Toews scored the opening goal in what turned into the 5-3 laugher.
While Tampa’s coach, Jon Cooper is no slouch in the intellect department or coaching department for that matter, he just doesn’t have the Quenneville experience. The ace in Cooper’s pocket is his Associate Coach, Rick Bowness. Here is a man who has stood behind an NHL bench as Head coach or Associate Coach for over 2000 games.
Final Analysis – Stanley Cup Final Game 1
Playoff experience is a wonderful thing to have. You don’t realize how much you need it until you face a team that has much more than yours. Chicago is almost dynastic and a win in this series solidifies that term. No easy feat in the salary cap era.
Tampa is a team on the verge but they beat one of the hottest goalies at the time in round one when they beat Petr Mrazek. They beat the best goalie in the world in round two when they took care of Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens. In the conference finals, they beat arguably the second best goalie in the world in Henrik Lundqvist.
What we have here folks, is playoff experience on the fly. Tampa is where Chicago was in the 2009-2010 season. On the precipice of a sustained playoff run. On the verge of having some people five years from now throw out the D word (dynasty) about them. The only thing standing in their way is a team that has been as close to a dynasty as the NHL has seen in a very long time. In my gut, Tampa takes Game 1 by a goal or two to get the 2015 Stanley Cup Final under way.
Born in Chicago, Illinois. Grew up playing and loving sports. Spent most of my formative years playing, debating, arguing and talking sports. for the last couple of years I have written about hockey. I am currently a Tampa Bay Lightning contributor for The Hockey Writers. I know that I may not always be right, but I am passionate about hockey and it is damn hard to hide that passion in my writing.