Three Key Matchups To Watch In Stanley Cup Final

It has been eight long months since the journey to Lord Stanley’s Cup began. Thirty teams dreamt of hoisting hockey’s most coveted prize. Two teams now have the opportunity to turn that fantasy into a reality.

The Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning will battle for the right to reach the NHL summit beginning Wednesday night at Amalie Arena. It is sure to be an exciting matchup pitting two clubs infused with star power up, down, and all around their respective lineups.

Chicago will look to stake it’s claim as the NHL’s next dynasty going for their third Stanley Cup in six seasons. Tampa will be playing in their first Stanley Cup Final since 2004, when they beat the Calgary Flames in seven games.

It might not be the sexiest matchup on paper but the Hawks and Bolts will offer enough excitement for both the diehard and casual fan to enjoy. As the Final is set to get underway, here are some key matchups to watch for.

Tampa’s Triplets vs. Chicago’s Top Two

Will three be greater than two? In Tampa’s case, they hope so.

Tyler Johnson has come of age at the right time for Tampa. (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)
Tyler Johnson has come of age at the right time for Tampa. (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)

In a matchup that will go a long way in deciding the outcome of this series, the line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat will find themselves up against either Duncan Keith or Brent Seabrook.

The Lightning’s “triplets” have given coach John Cooper a young, fast, and dynamic second line behind captain Steven Stamkos. They have combined to score 28 goals and 55 points during Tampa’s 20 postseason games so far.

As for the Hawks, Keith and Seabrook have been pulling extra weight for a depleted defense-corps after Michal Rozsival went down with an ankle injury. The 31-year-old Keith is averaging 31:35 of ice time per game while Seabrook clocks in at 26:21.

Hawks’ coach Joel Quenneville has been able to get away with his four-man defensive rotation to this point, but Tampa’s speed will put that to the test. Keith and Seabrook may be able to sustain their pace of playing around 28-32 minutes per night but the quality of those minutes will carry a greater weight than the quantity against the likes of Stamkos, Johnson, Palat, and Kucherov.

The Coaches

An intriguing storyline awaits the two men behind the bench.

Quenneville is in his seventh season as Chicago’s head coach. The 56-year-old is on the verge of spearheading a dynasty after previous Stanley Cups in 2010 and 2013.

Cooper is in his second full season with the Lightning. The 47-year-old was attending law school in Michigan and served time as a public defender before landing a job in the North American Hockey League.

Cooper proceeded to work his way up the ranks winning the Clark Cup in the United States Hockey League and the Calder Cup with Norfolk in the American Hockey League.

The Stanley Cup Finals are a different animal for the Prince George native. He draws the tough task of trying to outsmart his opposite number on the NHL’s biggest stage. For Quenneville, this is his third go-around in the Finals. It will be a big test for Cooper to outsmart him.

The one advantage the Bolts boss has is being granted the last change in four occasions if the series goes the full seven games. Home-ice advantage means little in the NHL these days but Cooper will have the option to mix and match his lines according to who Quenneville puts on the ice. If Chicago rolls out their lesser-used defensemen in David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey, Tampa can respond with one of their powerhouse top lines.

Two very different roads have led Quenneville and Cooper to the same prize. Can the former law student take his opposite number to school for the Stanley Cup?

Chicago’s Experience vs. Tampa’s Youth

The Blackhawks are no strangers to the pressure of a Cup Final. The Lightning are entering a brave new world the likes of which their young roster has never seen.

Nine current Blackhawks were on the 2010 and 2013 Stanley Cup championship teams. The notables from that group include Keith, Seabrook, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and captain Jonathan Toews. It is a testament to the job general manager Stan Bowman has done with shedding bad contracts off of his club while still retaining a large chunk of his veteran, championship players.

Chicago is in position to cement themselves as the next NHL dynasty thanks in part to Bowman’s work.

Filppula is the only Stanley Cup champion on Tampa's roster. (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)
Filppula is the only Stanley Cup champion on Tampa’s roster. (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Valtteri Filppula is the only player on the Lightning roster that has hoisted the Cup. As the graphic above shows, Tampa has the advantage in youth but not in experience. A majority of the roster will play in the Finals for the first time in their careers. Stamkos has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders as the captain of a club that has minimal experience playing for a championship. How will they respond in the face of adversity?

It will be one of the more intriguing aspects of this matchup that will tell fans a lot about Tampa’s mental fortitude facing Chicago’s experienced group.

Star power and fascinating storylines set the stage for what is sure to be another memorable battle for Lord Stanley’s Cup beginning on Wednesday night.