This Time It’s Personal
The Stanley Cup Finals are set as the Chicago Blackhawks will meet the Tampa Bay Lighting in the best of seven beginning Wednesday, June 3rd for the honor of hoisting the Stanley Cup. Please indulge a slight detour here as this series has significance for not only the supremacy in the NHL but within my family, there are bragging rights to be won with the intention of lording over this victory to siblings until next June.
You see, having been born and in the Windy City, I was raised a Blackhawk fan mostly by my older brother, George. He taught me and our younger brother, Rick, more about hockey than anyone else. We were taught to live, drink and breathe nothing but Blackhawks. We proudly wore the big Blackhawk Indian Chief as we followed players from Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita in my youth to Denis Savard and Ed Belfour.
Living and dying with the Blackhawks every NHL season until moving to Tampa a little less than 20 years ago. Because of the love I have for this game and the fact that the NHL Network was still 10 years from being created, the only NHL game in town and on my TV was the recent expansion team, the Tampa Bay Lightning. To provide more reason to follow them, they had the #1 pick in the NHL draft a few weeks after I arrived in Florida.
Long story short and to end my personal detour, the Lightning drafted Vinny Lecavalier with the #1 pick and then drafted Brad Richards. Soon after, the team signed Marty St. Louis and hired John Tortorella as the coach and I was hooked on the Lightning. Then they went ahead and won the Cup in 2004. Sorry, Chicago, that’s all she wrote. Sorry, George and Rick, blood is thicker than water but this is silver and nickel alloy hockey. Now, it is my new team for the last 18 years against the team of my youth. Thanks for the indulgence and back to my preview and series prediction.
There have been a couple of elite goalies (Carey Price, Henrik Lundqvist) in the playoffs, a couple of hot goalies (Frederick Andersen, Devan Dubnyk) and a few on the brink of classification as an elite goalie (Braden Holtby, Corey Crawford) and one goalie attempting to make a name for himself (Ben Bishop) in the playoffs thus far. The two left standing are Crawford and Bishop, both recognized over the last couple years as outstanding but rarely mentioned as one of the league’s outstanding goalies.
There is an old hockey adage that says Cups are won with goaltending. While that may be true, you would be hard pressed to get veteran NHL analysts to say either Ben Bishop or Corey are elite goaltenders. Make no mistake, both goalies are good, even very good but neither is considered world-class like a Carey Price or a Henrik Lunqvist.
In fact, twice during these playoffs, Ben Bishop was yanked from a game and Crawford was so shaky in the round one series with Nashville that his backup Scott Darling, has played in five games, starting four of those. If, and that’s a big if, either of these guys were shaky, that notion was put to rest by both of them leading their respective teams to a victory in Game 7 in their Conference Finals – ON THE ROAD.
To his credit, Corey Crawford won a Stanley Cup back in 2013. Clearly, he knows what it takes to get his name engraved on the best trophy of all sports. Ben Bishop is playing in his first playoffs as a starting goalie. Slight advantage to Crawford.
Heading into these finals, Bishop has played 20 games and won 12. Crawford has played in 14 and won nine. Bishop has been peppered with 525 shots and has a save percentage of .920 while Crawford has seen 455 shots with a save percentage of .919. Most would call this a dead heat. Bishop has a better GAA (goals against average) allowing an average of 2.15 goals per game while Crawford’s GAA stands at 2.56. This would give a very slight leaning to Bishop in this area.
Overall, the goalies in this series are even. What Crawford has in experience, Bishop has in GAA and a tick higher save percentage while facing 70 more shots. The goaltending in this series does not favor either team but will depend on which of these might get hot and whose defense plays better in front of them.
During the regular season, the Tampa Bay Lightning was the highest scoring team in the league. Led by that line, The Triplets, coupled with Steven Stamkos and his line, Tampa outscored all other NHL teams. As we all know the playoffs are a different animal and Chicago is actually outscoring the Lightning through the first three rounds.
The Blackhawks are the third highest scoring playoff team with a 3.29 goals per game average. Ironically, two of the three teams Chicago beat in the earlier round, Anaheim and Nashville ended their playoff runs with even higher scoring rates per game than Chicago. Coming in at fourth in goals per game for the playoffs are the Tampa Bay Lightning at 2.75.
It is difficult to talk offense without talking about who is going to defend the team’s scorers. Let’s look at the Triplets line. The line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov was the best line in the NHL this season. The only line with all three players in the top 40 in points and if you think this line is all about scoring, they were number two, three and four in +/- for the season. Their speed which makes them such a threat to score also makes them great in the neutral zone as back checkers and it is these defensive skills that makes their transition to offense damn hard to neutralize. Just as a reminder to how quick the Triplets can manufacture a goal with their defense and speed, look at this:
In the Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Rangers, Alain Vigneault chose to stop the Triplets using his top defensive pair of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi. Much was made, especially by New York media types, during the ECFs that the Rangers had finally figured out how to contain this line better than any other team. Fact is that The Triplets had a total of 31 points collectively in the first two rounds against Detroit and Montreal. In the ECFs, they scored 24 total points paired up against New York’s best defensive duo most of the time.
So Joel Quenneville has to pick his poison and decide which scoring line to stop and with which defensive pair. If he uses his top two D-pair to stop the Triplets, it’ll be Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook but those two have been paired with others for most of the conference finals. And if Quenneville does go with that duo, who does he use to stop the revitalized Steven Stamkos line with the red-hot Alex Killorn?
On Chicago’s side, it is the usual suspects of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp. That is a group loaded with talent and just as much playoff experience. Then you add former Conn Smythe winner, Brad Richards, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw and impressive rookie, Teemo Teravainen and the firepower is there for Chicago.
Much like the goalie matchup, there is very little difference between these two. Will the young, up and coming Lightning with Stamkos, The Triplets and Killorn outscore the experienced, veterans including Toews, Kane, Sharp and Hossa? Both squads even have a defenseman that can jump in the play and make things happen on the offensive side in Duncan Keith and Victor Hedman.
So, will it be youth or experience? I have to give Tampa a slight edge for just two small reasons. The depleted defensive corps of Chicago can be exploited and the overall speed of Tampa’s forwards. Keep in mind that for the last six seasons the Blackhawks have gone deep, very deep in the playoffs every year. An extra 15 to 25 hard fought, hard hitting games takes its toll, especially when the athletes are on the wrong side of 30. But this matchup is thisclose.
Chicago’s coach Joel Quenneville has had to juggle his defensive pairings after losing Michal Rozsival to that nasty ankle injury in the Minnesota series. Throughout the Western Conference Finals, Chicago basically played with four defenseman and those four warriors logged a boatload of minutes in the WCFs.
After losing Rozsival, Kimmo Timonen is playing like a 40 year-old man that hasn’t played much in the last couple seasons and cannot be counted on for any substantial minutes. That is if Quenneville decides not to scratch him. The other two defenders that Chicago must rely on besides their top four of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjarmalsson and Johnny Oduya are Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad.
The wild card here for Chicago is Trevor Van Riemsdyk, the 23 year-old rookie defenseman had been cleared medically to play about 10 days ago but after missing about three months with a knee injury and another two months after wrist surgery, he may not have his skating legs back. Is TVR ready to play? If he is ready, how much will he bring to the depleted blue liners of the Blackhawks?
On the Lightning side, Coach Jon Cooper has played the unconventional alignment of 11 forwards and 7 defensemen in 11 of the team’s 20 playoffs games. In those games, Tampa has won eight and lost three games. Cooper has been consistently using this structure in the last six games of the ECFs. It’s probably a good bet he stays with this format throughout the Stanley Cup Finals.
Not only does the 11/7 lineup help ease all the defensive unit’s minutes, it gives Tampa a chance on the power play to play offensive minded, Nikita Nesterov without having to rely on him in many 5v5 situations. It also guards against an injury.
Tampa’s top two pairing is as good as any combination Quenneville runs out. Victor Hedman is every bit an offensive weapon as Duncan Keith with a little better defensive play and Anton Stralman may not be the bruiser that Brent Seabrook is but he is every bit the defensive defenseman that Seabrook is for Chicago.
The experience again goes to Chicago and a slight edge has to go to them for that reason. Having said that, I will give a couple of disclaimers: First, Chicago took one hell of a beating in the Anaheim series. The Ducks laid 341 hits on the Blackhawks in the seven games of the WCFs. Those hits take a physical toll especially on a depleted group. Conversely, the Tampa Bay Lightning received 206 hits from the Rangers in the seven games of the ECFs. If the Blackhawks can match up with the speed of Tampa’s forwards, they will maintain the edge. If not, it’s a whole new ballgame.
Chicago gets a slight edge primarily because of the experience. If Trevor Van Reimsdyk convinces Quenneville that he is ready to go, a bigger edge goes to Chicago. One caveat I feel I need to say is that whichever defensive unit leads in blocked shots will stack the decks for their team. Both Chicago and Tampa blocked 112 shots in their respective conference finals. In their four victories, Chicago averaged 20.75 blocked shots while Tampa averaged 18.5. In their three conference final losses, Tampa blocked 12.7 shots and Chicago only blocked 9.7. This stat will loom large in this series.
With two Stanley Cups on his resume, Joel Quenneville has the decided edge over second year coach, Jon Cooper of the Lightning. But the edge isn’t as large as Chicago fans would like to think. First, Jon Cooper has won at every level he has coached. In fact, eight of the current Lightning roster were coached by Cooper when he led them to an AHL Championship as coach of the then Lightning affiliate, Norfolk Admirals. Granted, this isn’t the Stanley Cup but like muscle memory, winning a championship with almost half the guys in the room has to count for something.
The other things that shouldn’t be quickly dismissed by Chicago is Cooper’s unconventional thinking and Rick Bowness. With over 2000 games behind an NHL bench, yes that is not a misprint, Bowness has seen it all and sits at the right hand of Cooper. The only other coach who has coached over 2000 NHL games is the legendary Scotty Bowman The coaching edge is in Chicago’s hand but it is closer than it appears on the surface.
Tampa’s power play has played better in the last half of their playoff games than the first half. Overall, they are scoring at a 22.2% rate. Chicago is just slightly below that at 19.6%. Whichever team can put one on the board early can swing the PP momentum their way. Slight edge to Tampa.
Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, Tampa’s PK unit is playing slightly better than Chicago 81.2% to 75.5%. Let’s not forget that during the season, Chicago was among the league leaders in the penalty kill. They have the playoff experience and many of their defensive stars make a great unit.
Two factors will matter in this category for Chicago. How many penalties they will have to kill and whether or not Van Reimsdyk makes it back. He played with Keith during the season and impressed those who saw him. He can be the boost that Chicago’s injured defensemen need. But until that happens, I give the slight edge to Tampa but like most categories, it is close.
Prediction: Tampa Bay Lightning in Seven
This series has the makings of a classic. Youth versus experience, as one franchise has had an incredible playoff run over the last seven years as Chicago has won two Stanley Cups. Perhaps, their window of success is closing. The other franchise, Tampa, seems to be beginning a run that feels like it could go on for at least seven years with all the youth on the team. Tampa has home ice and this close matchup could very well come down to that. The Tampa Bay Lightning in seven is my prediction. The team of my adulthood over the team of my youth. This is going to be an enjoyable series to behold.
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.