Every year the hockey world unites in anticipation and excitement around one defining event. The Stanley Cup Final has become synonymous with hockey itself. It represents the epic culmination of the grueling, demanding path that two teams have taken to reach the pinnacle of the National Hockey League. This year fans of the sport are fortunate enough to see two teams who embody so many of the things that the league itself has going for it slug it out on hockey’s biggest stage. The Tampa Bay Lightning have emerged from the Eastern Conference, while the Chicago Blackhawks have come out of the Western Conference as its champion for the third time in six years.
Before delving into the X’s and O’s, the personnel match-ups, or potential coaching strategies that we may see unfold over the next couple of weeks, let’s take a moment to fully appreciate the quality of the matchup of these two teams that lays before us.
In their 2010 Final the Chicago Blackhawks ran into an offensive juggernaut in the Philadelphia Flyers. Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Daniel Briere, Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk, Scott Hartnell and Simon Gagne formed a forward core that could score in a hurry. The defense was solid with Chris Pronger as its anchor, but the infamously abysmal goaltending duo of Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher gave the Blackhawks a huge edge.
Then in 2013 it was the Boston Bruins who would challenge the Blackhawks. Led by Tuukka Rask, Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron, the Bruins were a suffocating defensive squad who made it an absurdly difficult task to produce offense against them. The Bruins were a team that was challenged in terms of producing their own offense. David Krejci led the way in that postseason run, but he along with Lucic, Horton, Bergeron and Marchand were the only Bruins forwards to top 10 points in that playoffs. The Blackhawks were able to outscore the Bruins en route to their second Stanley Cup in four years.
That brings us to this year, 2015, where it is the Tampa Bay Lightning who will meet the Blackhawks in the Final. While the 2010 Flyers and 2013 Bruins had clear weaknesses that the Blackhawks were able to exploit, I challenge you to find a weak point on the Tampa Bay roster. In net? Not with the unspectacular, but steady-as-a-rock Ben Bishop manning the pipes. The defense as fantastic as well, with Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn, Jason Garrison and Matt Carle forming a very reliable top five. But it’s the offensive firepower where this Lightning squad really sets itself apart. Six forwards have already topped the 10 point mark, and they led the NHL in goals as a team in the regular season. This brings us to…
Why the Lightning Might Win
There’s a youthful exuberance to this Tampa Bay Lightning team that makes their on-ice play nothing short of beautiful to watch. When asked how his team was able to knock off a New York Rangers team that was seen as borderline invincible when facing elimination at home, the ever well-spoken Jon Cooper said it best. “Maybe we’re young, dumb, and don’t know any better,” the head coach quipped.
His words contain a simplistic truth that is sure to resonate with any fan of the game who has watched this Lightning team’s run unfold. In the first round they rallied back from a 3-2 deficit to knock off a very good Detroit Red Wings team in Game 7. They followed that up by storming out to a 3-0 series lead against the Montreal Canadiens. Unfazed by the supposed lore of Carey Price’s other-worldly record breaking season, they ultimately wrapped up hockey’s most storied franchise in six games. Then it was the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final. Everything seemed to point to a Rangers victory in this series. It was their time after all. They were the defending Eastern Conference champions whose championship window was wide open, but probably not so for much longer. The Lightning were a young team who showed great promise and their time would certainly come later, but this was the Rangers’ time. The Rangers set out to “change the ending” from last season’s Stanley Cup Final defeat, but it was the Lightning who changed the ending for them by ensuring they wouldn’t even make it that far this year.
Maybe they really are just young, dumb, and don’t know any better.
They certainly are young. This is a team built through the draft. Its franchise forward, Steven Stamkos (25), was the first overall pick in 2008. Its franchise defenseman, Victor Hedman (24), was the second overall pick in 2009. The team was patient with Hedman, allowing him to develop at a slower pace. This has paid off in spades, as Hedman has proven himself to be elite and he appears ready to contend for the Norris Trophy in the coming years.
If you’ve watched any of the Lightning’s playoff run this year, chances are you know all about Tyler Johnson. You know that he’s short, standing at just 5’9″, and you know that he was never drafted into the NHL, signing with the Lightning as an undrafted free agent. But don’t let the media hype fool you, Tyler Johnson’s success (21 points in 20 games) in this postseason did not come out of nowhere. Would you be surprised if I told you that Tyler Johnson led the entire NHL in even strength points per 60 minutes during this past regular season? Well, he did.
But he didn’t do it alone. Tyler Johnson (24) makes up only one-third of the best line in hockey, known as the “Triplets”. He’s flanked by 2011 7th round draft pick Ondrej Palat (24) on the left side and 2011 2nd round pick Nikita Kucherov (21) on his right.
None of these five players are older than 25, and together they make up a core that will ensure that this is not the last we see of the Tampa Bay Lightning on hockey’s greatest stage.
But how will they unseat Chicago as hockey’s next potential dynasty? That aforementioned youthful exuberance will help, but what it really boils down to is their ability to win games in a multitude of ways.
The Lightning can win games however they please. Want to run-and-gun? Fine, but good luck shutting down both the Johnson line and the Stamkos line (with Killorn and Filpulla, recently) at the same time. Would you like to play a slower game where every goal is valuable while you take away their speed by clogging the neutral zone? Well, the Lightning excel at that too. They just beat the President’s Trophy winners in Game 5 and Game 7 on the road in back to back shutouts, primarily by taking away the Rangers’ time and space in the neutral and offensive zones.
Ben Bishop is no weakness in net and Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman form a top pairing that can absolutely dominate a hockey game in all three zones.
One thing I find to be key in this series will be Tampa Bay’s ability to ice a productive third line. The Blackhawks can match Keith-Seabrook and Hjalmarsson-Oduya against the top two lines and expect reasonable success in doing so, but beyond that the Blackhawks’ struggles with defensive depth have been well documented. And with all due respect to Corey Crawford, I don’t think he’s exactly threatening to a team that has just knocked out Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist in back-to-back series.
Ryan Callahan’s return to form in the latter half of the series against the Rangers could be huge for his team. If I’m Jon Cooper, I strongly consider finally making the move to get Jonathan Drouin into the lineup against the Blackhawks in place of Brenden Morrow. A third line of Drouin, Cedric Paquette and Callahan could be a force to be reckoned with offensively while not being a defensive liability. It is paramount that the Lightning find a way to exploit what will certainly be a weak bottom pairing for Chicago. If they can find a way to do that, I think they’ll be in good shape. But it certainly will not be an easy task in any way, shape, or form.
Why the Blackhawks Might Win
The Chicago Blackhawks are the very definition of a battle tested team. They’ve won two Stanley Cups together, and now they find themselves with a glorious chance to capture a third. You know who they are. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Corey Crawford. That’s the outstanding core that has been assembled in the Second City, and they represent the favorites in this Stanley Cup Final heading in.
If there’s any team in the league that has the personnel to keep the Tampa Bay Lightning’s electric offense in check, I submit that it is these Chicago Blackhawks, and that’s just one of the many reasons why this series is such a tantalizing match-up for hockey fans.
The question for the Blackhawks centers around which deployment of their personnel best maximizes their chance of keeping the Lightning in check. The line of Saad-Toews-Hossa will almost certainly do well in possession against whomever they see as their opposition. Putting that line with Keith and Seabrook as a five man unit will almost certainly eliminate one of Tampa’s top two lines, but the other one will find itself in a situation to thrive.
That being said, if I’m Joel Quenneville, I’m putting the Hjalmarsson-Oduya pairing with the Toews line, and putting Keith-Seabrook with the Vermette line. Both of those five man units would be capable of getting the job done against Tampa Bay’s two elite top lines. Using the Kane line against Tampa Bay’s third line as much as possible seems to be a no-brainer, as well.
I see Corey Crawford and Ben Bishop as pretty close to a wash at this point, but Corey Crawford has been here and won a Stanley Cup before, so I would give him the slightest of edges between the pipes for the Blackhawks.
I also like the forward depth that Chicago possesses more than Tampa Bay’s. It’s unlikely that Drouin draws in for the Bolts, and therefore they don’t have many bottom six options that represent offensive threats. That isn’t the case for the Blackhawks. Chicago’s third line of Sharp, Vermette, and Teuvo Teravainen is one that can certainly come through with some offense in a pinch. Marcus Kruger has come through a few times, and he and Andrew Shaw can find ways to put the puck in the net as well.
While there is just an absolute abundance of aspects to like on both sides of the ice in this series, a prediction does have to be made. Which brings me to…
Prediction: Lightning in Seven
As I said, there is so much to like about each of these outstanding teams. They are both absolutely worthy of being where they are, and for my money they truly are the two best teams in the league. That being said, one of them has to emerge victorious, get their names engraved on Lord Stanley’s Cup, and begin a summer of celebration, while the other will have to go home dejected and hope they will get another shot at it next year.
As a Blackhawks contributor, I picked the Blackhawks in each of their three previous series leading up to this one. It’s certainly difficult to pick against them now, with all the experience and talent that they possess. To me, there is just something special about this Tampa Bay Lightning team. They truly have it all, from their forwards, to their defensemen, to their goalie, to their head coach, and all the way up to their front office. The Chicago Blackhawks may be the league’s current model franchise, but I think the Tampa Bay Lightning will be the ones to duel them for that title in the coming years, and I think the first rendition of this battle goes to the Lightning.
I think they’re playing slightly better hockey at the moment, and in my mind one of the deciding factors in this series will be the ability that they have to reliably play seven defensemen, while Chicago can only trust four of theirs. It didn’t quite work out for the Anaheim Ducks, but perhaps they wore the Blackhawks down just enough for the Lightning to finish them off.
Regardless, this is going to be an incredible series of hockey. It will be fast, frenetic, and chaotic to the highest and most beautiful degree. I see no way this series does not go at least six games, and neither team coming out on top would be a surprise to me. Hockey fans, both die-hard and casual, are surely in for a treat.