Stanley Cup Finals Re-Match Lite without Duncan Keith

Sea of Change

For the Tampa Bay Lightning, Saturday’s game has been earmarked on their calendar since the schedules were released. They will step foot on the United Center ice for the first time, since game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

Last Season, each team won on their home ice during the regular season, with the Blackhawks getting their win in a shoot out. In the play-offs, they each split at home in the first four games, but then the Blackhawks killer instinct kicked in, winning two straight to clinch the title. The series was one of the tightest match ups in recent history, with only the final game being decided by more than one goal. This was truly a match up for the ages, and should be one to watch for years to come.

Tonight’s game will no doubt have a different feel, as the Blackhawks team that will be on the ice is markedly different from the one that raised the Stanley Cup back in June. Gone are Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Kris Versteeg, Johnny Oduya and game one hero, Antoine Vermette. The Hawks will also be without their Conn Smythe winning defenseman, Duncan Keith, who is recovering from knee surgery.

(Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)
(Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)

The Lightning return for this season largely intact, with only a few minor roster changes, but all of the key contributors have returned.

Who’s Hot

While the Lightning had the ‘triplet line’ last year, the Blackhawks have the ‘bread and butter line’ this season. For the Hawks, ten of the teams seventeen goals have come from this line, which is made up of Artemi Panarin (2), Artem Anisimov (3), and Patrick Kane (5). The Breadman, Panarin and Kane are perfectly daunting, as they are like watching clones cut through the opposing line like butter. Anisimov, then artfully stashes their crumbs in the back of the net, though the pair frequently don’t require any clean up. This trio is likely to give teams fits through out the season.

In Tampa, the opposite it true. The top line has been the better line, with Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan lighting the lamp a total of eight times between them. Stamkos struggled at times to find his offense during the post season last spring, but he has clearly found it, and the timing is perfect as he is due a contract extension. However, it remains unclear whether that extension will come from the Lightning, as rumors continue to swirl about his future.

Who’s Not

The Blackhawks top line is struggling mightily as they look for the left side anchor, that was once held by Saad. In years past, Patrick Sharp was always available, however he was traded to the Dallas Stars over the summer. The logical replacement is Marko Dano, but he is still getting some seasoning with the Rockford Icehogs. In the mean time, Hossa has broken through with his first goal of the season, but Jonathan Toews has yet to find the back of the net.

Tyler Johnson was a surprise for the Lightning last spring, as he just blew up the score sheets in nearly every series. A late injury managed to silence him down the stretch, but he was the lightning rod throughout most of their play-off run. It would appear he is still working on finding his way back to that level of production, as he has yet to produce a goal this season.

Forward Thinking

The lines to watch will be the top two lines for both teams. It is expected that Kruger’s line will draw up on one of the Lightnings’ top two lines, with Toews’ line handling the other. If Toews goes head-to-head with Stamkos, it should put him in more of a defensive mode. However, it could open up some scoring opportunities for his line mates Hossa, and grinder Viktor Tikhonov, or possibly the blue line. They will have to keep a close eye on Callahan, as he has been quite effective when teams focus too much on the Lightning’s captain.

Kruger’s line might have the tougher of the two jobs if they are tasked with keeping the triplet line off the score sheet. The two wings, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov have had solid starts, but the last thing the Blackhawks want is for Johnson to find his rhythm against them. However, as the shut down line, they might be able to work their advantage in the offensive zone for a greasy goal.

Last season, Coach Q switched his line matches in order to get Toews going off a cold streak.  It is likely he will do that again in order to get the best looks for the captain, and hopefully ignite that line. With Quenneville, it is nearly impossible to predict what he is planning, and even if you manage to guess correctly, it is likely to change the very next shift.

All of the forwards will have to play a tight game in the defensive zone, in order to help their blue line. This team has the depth to take advantage of a Blackhawks team that is without Duncan Keith.

Defensive Blues

The defensive pairings will be where the biggest shake ups have occurred for the Blackhawks. Niklas Hjalmarsson will play on the left side, as he did on Thursday. This change is likely to be an advantage for Hjalmarsson, as he adjusts back to his natural position. Brent Seabrook and Trevor van Riemsdyk have both spent time on his right. Some combination of the three will likely be on the ice for the bulk of the minutes without Duncan Keith. All three blue liners will be doing double duty, moving the puck and and attempting to shut down the Lightning’s most effective players.  Hjalmarsson is used to the shut down role, however Keith has always been the go to, in terms of moving the puck down the ice.  Trevor van Riemsdyk has improved with every shift, and has shown that Joel Quenneville’s faith in him was not unwarranted last season. The clear evidence of Q’s trust is the increase in minutes (22:34 in his first game without Keith, up from 9:01 in last years Final), as TVR has become more comfortable in his role.

Trevor Daley on the other hand, has had an up and down start. At times he looks to fit in quite well, though he has been caught in his own end a few times. Something that might have earned him a spot in Coach Q’s dog house, were it not for the already thin blue line.

(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

From there, you have the hulking presence of Viktor Svedberg, who is quite agile, especially at six foot eight. Last season, he spent time as a Black Ace, but was never called up to play in an NHL game. He has a good hard shot, but his inexperience can catch him in the defensive zone at times. Finally, the Hawks have given the final spot to David Rundblad for now, but he has been on an exceedingly short leash as he comes off of being a healthy scratch prior to Keith’s injury. He is prone to defensive mistakes around his own net, but he does have some offensive upside. He will likely be playing the fewest minutes of all the Hawks defensemen.

This should be the biggest test of the season thus far, for the current incarnation of the Blackhawks committee defense.

For the Lightning, the top pair is anchored by Victor Hedman, who is quite simply the closest thing to Duncan Keith that the league has to offer. In other words, he is quite good in any situation. Anton Stralman is also very effective in all three zones, and the pair can make Keith’s absence feel more like the gaping hole that it is, with little effort.

Against the Panthers, the Hawks defense was not really tested, but the Lightning is a deep defensive team, and they will exploit every single misstep. The young blue liners will have to put forth their very best effort in order to keep this from getting out of hand.

Goal Oriented

For the Hawks, Corey Crawford will get the start. He will have to do his best to provide an air tight barrier, as the defense is likely to be tested early and often by the aggressive Lightning forwards. Crawford as always is their last line of defense, and he will have to have a great performance in order to cancel out the advantage with the lopsided defense.

For the Lightning, it is possible that Kristers Gudlevskis will see his first start for the Lightning as Ben Bishop has started the first eight games, and is coming of the first game in a back-to-back. However, Bishop has not been ruled out to start at this time, and Coach Jon Cooper does not seem confident enough to let anyone else have a shot. There has been much talk of Big Ben’s early usage, and with Keith’s absence it would seem like a good time to give Gudlevskis the nod. Andrei Vasilevskiy remains unavailable due to an off season blood clot issue, however he is reportedly nearing a return, so this may be Gudlevskis’s only shot at a start this season, barring another injury to one of the top to netminders.