The Chicago Blackhawks head into March in surprisingly good shape with a 12-7-4 record and in a playoff spot, having won nine of their 13 games in the month of February. But they could hit a roadblock ahead in the Tampa Bay Lightning, who boast a 15-4-1 record and are currently riding a five-game winning streak. It’s not going to be easy for the Blackhawks as they get set to host the defending Stanley Cup champions in a three-game series this weekend.
With that in mind, I hooked up with my colleague Kyle Knopp, who covers the Lightning here at The Hockey Writer’s, to get some perspective from the enemy. We sat down for a friendly Q and A session to discuss the current state of both teams, and the upcoming matchups. Here’s our conversation below, as well as our predictions for the series.
Stamkos’ Sustaining Success
Question: Steven Stamkos was the 2nd star of February in your recent 3 Stars of the Month post, and he procured two goals and three assists against the Blackhawks in their first two matchups. What is contributing to Stamko’s success, and do you think he can keep this up against the Blackhawks again?
Kyle: The main contributing factor to Stamkos’ success is the same driving force behind the Lightning’s successful Stanley Cup run last season – depth and special teams. Stamkos is technically on the second line, which allows for more favorable matchups at even strength. He plays with Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli who are both great at causing turnovers and winning puck battles in the dirty areas. This allows Stamkos to be more creative in the offensive zone and use his talent to make plays.
Playing the point on the top power play unit also allows him to unleash his shot form the left circle; something the Lightning have relied more on this season without injured Nikita Kurcherov.
Lightning Players/Factors to Watch
Q: Besides Stamkos, what other Lightning players or other factors should the Blackhawks be looking out for in this series?
Kyle: The obvious answer right now is goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. He just posted his third shutout in a row and has yet to give up a goal in over 200 minutes of ice time. Solving Vasilevskiy will be the biggest hurdle for the Blackhawks, but they have already shown that they can score on him this year.
Forward Ondrej Palat has been flying under the radar with 12 points in his last 14 games. Seven of those points have come on the power play, as he gives the Lightning a left-handed option to mirror Stamkos from the other circle.
Two in-game elements I am really looking forward to during this series is the Blackhawks power play versus the Lightning penalty kill, and the head-to-head matchup between head coaches Jon Cooper and Jeremy Colliton. The Hawks’ man advantage has been on fire this season — including goals in both games against the Bolts in January — while the Lightning have tightened up their penalty kill. After giving up a power play goal in each of the first three games, the Lightning have only conceded five power play goals in the last 17 games.
As for the coaches, Colliton seems to have found his stride with the Blackhawks. Cooper likes to start his third line on the road to try to set the tone and take control of the game, but Colliton will have the last change advantage for three straight games. It will be fun to see what type of adjustments both teams make to attempt to match and control the flow of the game.
Lightning Improvement, Thoughts on Playing Blackhawks
Q: As you know, the Blackhawks have surprised many by being much more competitive than expected this season, despite those bad first two contests against the Lightning. Chicago is banking on this improvement and growth to continue their winning ways. But I’m sure the Lightning could say they have gotten better as well. In what ways would you say they have improved, and do you in any way see the Blackhawks as a challenge?
Kyle: I think any hockey fan will tell you this is not the same Blackhawks’ team that opened the 2020-21 season in Tampa Bay. They are young, fast, extremely talented, and have found their confidence in each other, which makes them a difficult team to play against. The Lightning are playing high level hockey when they can control the flow of play, but have struggled when the opposition has forces the play back to them. If the Blackhawks can find a way to keep the Lightning on their heels and force turnovers deep, they have enough offensive weapons to steal a couple points.
Blackhawks Players to Watch
Q: Are there any specific Blackhawks’ players you are concerned about in this upcoming series?
Kyle: How can you not be concerned any time Patrick Kane (who just scored career goal No. 400) and Alex DeBrincat are out on the ice? These two Americans are so much fun to watch and can score from anywhere on the ice. The Lightning defensive core are going to be in for a tough three games against this line, and I could see Cooper rotating five defensemen to try to shut them down.
I’m also excited to see Pius Suter and Dominik Kubalik up close for a second time. I think both guys were a little awestruck in those first two games, and have settled down since. It will be fun to see them with a little more confidence in their game.
Kyle also posed to few questions to me about the Blackhawks and these upcoming contests.
Q: How does an Original Six franchise like the Blackhawks view a team like the Lightning?
Gail: Back in the Blackhawks’ hey-day when they were winning Cups every couple of years, they likely turned up their noses a bit at the Lightning down there in Florida. After all, this upstart team had only been around since 1992, and won just one Cup in 2004. That’s nothing compared to the storied history of the Blackhawks, and their six Stanley Cups since their founding in 1926. I’m sure it didn’t help matters when the Blackhawks beat the Lightning in rather unremarkable fashion to win their sixth Cup in 2015, and by a 2-0 shutout to boot.
But times have changed since then, haven’t they? While the Blackhawks have struggled since that last Cup, the Lightning have become a dominant force, culminating in their championship run in the 2019-20 season. And let’s face it, only Kane and Duncan Keith were part of that Blackhawks “dynasty”; everyone else currently on the team is new, and much younger. So now I’m sure the Blackhawks look up to the Lightning as a team to emulate.
Q: How much extra drive is there when playing the reigning champions?
Gail: Those first two losses of the season at the hands of the Lightning were embarrassing and humiliating. Not only did the Blackhawks lose, but they were outshot, outplayed and outscored to the tune of 5-1 and 5-2. This is a proud group of guys, and they’re hungry to prove they’re a better team than those first two games indicated.
Finding success against the reigning Stanley Cup champions is the perfect measuring stick for this young team moving forward. If they can be competitive in this next string of games, it will give them confidence and momentum for their difficult March schedule.
Let’s put it this way; these games are HUGE!
Q: What has been the Blackhawks’ catalyst for turning heads this season?
Gail: It would be easy to say Kane here. And don’t get me wrong; this team wouldn’t be where they are now without the talent of the Blackhawks’ veteran superstar. I’d also like to mention Coach Colliton, who should be credited with getting his squad to believe in themselves and to buy in to what he’s preaching.
But it’s really all about the kids. The Blackhawks have a new identity and a new future, and it comes from the combined talents and skills of the youngsters. These fledgling stars are working hard as hell individually and as a team to be the best they can be. They have the world at their feet, and they’re just getting started. It’s refreshing, exciting, and it’s really fun to watch.
Blackhawks/Lightning Series Prediction
Q: All right, it’s time for the final call. What is your prediction for the outcome of this three-game series?
Kyle: This is a tough one to predict. I confidently put money down on the Bolts to win the first two games against the Hawks this season, but this time out is different. While the Lightning are 9-1-0 at home this season, they are only 6-3-1 on the road – the exact same record the Blackhawks hold this season at the United Center.
My prediction is the Lightning come out strong, riding Vasilevskiy’s streak to a 4-1 or 5-2 victory in Game 1, with the Blackhawks scoring at least one power play goal.
Game 2 will show Colliton’s creativity behind the bench as some line juggling will lead to a one-goal win by the Hawks, possibly two goals due to an empty netter. The rubber match for Game 3 will be a high-energy, back-and-forth overtime thriller – I won’t spoil who wins.
Gail: Kevin Lankinen has emerged as the Blackhawks’ No. 1 goaltender, and if you remember, he wasn’t in the picture when the Blackhawks first faced the Lightning. Look for him to have a big impact in this series. Since there are back-to-back contests on Thursday and Friday, Malcolm Subban will likely suit up as well. He’ll be looking to redeem himself and prove he can be a viable backup netminder.
As for wins and losses, I think I would have to agree with Kyle that the Blackhawks will take at least one of the three games. And an overtime point would be an added bonus. While every point is obviously important, the Blackhawks mostly want to prove they can hang with one of the best teams in the league.
Let’s get this party started!
Thank you so much to Kyle for joining us to discuss the Blackhawks and the Lightning, and their upcoming three-game series this Thursday, Friday and Sunday afternoon. It’s always a good thing to have a little more insight about your enemy. Let’s hope these matchups prove to be eventful, competitive and entertaining for all!
Avid Chicago Blackhawks fan and follower! Would much rather be reading and writing about hockey than cooking and cleaning. Otherwise known as The Hockey Housewife.