Stanley Cup finals preview: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Chicago Blackhawks
Nov. 11: Blackhawks 3, Lightning 2 (SO)
Feb. 27: Lightning 4, Blackhawks 0
Blackhawks: D Michael Rozsival (ankle, out for season)
Both teams boast top-end talent. In Steven Stamkos, the Lightning possess an elite gamebreaker whose 43 regular season goals were second only to Alex Ovechkin’s 53. And his early playoff struggles? A thing of the past. Stamkos broke loose for four goals and seven points against the Rangers in the third round and was consistently dangerous off the wing, where he seemed to more readily find the space he needs to make the most of his wicked shot. Linemate Alex Killorn has emerged as a two-way threat as well, using his size and speed to win battles and get into the greasy areas—take a look at his winning goal in Game 7 to see just how effective he can be even in a crowded space. The Triplets (Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov) were slowed slightly by New York, but remained dangerous. There’s a swagger to their play now, a sense that they can break any game open if given just the slightest opportunity (see: Kucherov’s OT winner in Game 3). Their speed makes them the line that Chicago must hold in check.
Keep an eye on Tampa Bay winger Ryan Callahan as the X Factor. He was relentless during the last two games of the Rangers series, scoring once and landing 12 shots on net to drive a stake through the heart of his former team. He should have no trouble finding similar motivation with the Stanley Cup on the line, but you never know. If the intensity is there, he could make a difference in this series.
As good as Tampa Bay’s top-six have been, the bottom group has been limited to measuring its effectiveness in defensive terms. Offense? Forget about it. Of the Lightning’s 21 most recent goals, that group has accounted for only one. It’s a disparity that makes the Bolts an easier group to defend against, in theory at least, and it could create a big edge for Chicago’s more balanced four-line attack. That group is deeper at center with the acquisition of former Tampa Bay star Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette, and it has enviable wealth on the third line where the playmaking skills of Teuvo Teravainen and two-way play of Patrick Sharp give the Hawks an array of weapons that the Bolts just can’t match.
Of course, like the Lightning, the Hawks will rely heavily on their own top-six, which might (or might not) feature a revamped top line of Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad and Jonathan Toews. It’s a trio that overwhelmed Ryan Getzlaf's line in the Western finals, and it could pose a similar challenge against the Triplets. Kane can match them stride for stride. Saad provides a big, intimidating presence. And then there’s Toews. Is there any forward you’d take over him at this time of year? Chicago’s captain has been compared endlessly to Mark Messier during the past few days but as the Hawks head to Tampa a more apt comparison should take hold: Steve Yzerman. The Lightning’s GM and Toews share a similar DNA. Fiercely competitive and always leading by example, Toews has that gift for raising his teammates up to his level. If that kind of guy exists on the Lightning, he hasn’t revealed himself yet.
The X Factor for the Hawks? Keep an eye on Richards, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy with the Bolts in 2004. After a long breaking-in period, he’s found a comfort level playing alongside either Kane or Marian Hossa on the second line. With 11 points through the first three rounds, he’s shown that he still has something left in his tank.
Time to come clean: I was among those who expected a short bench and the relentless punishment inflicted by Anaheim’s forecheckers to eventually wear Chicago’s four blueliners down to the nub. It didn’t happen, and that pretty much says it all about the courage, the stamina and the efficiency of this group. It helps that the Hawks have Conn Smythe favorite Duncan Keith playing on every pair (alright, maybe it just seems that way). The indefatigable veteran is playing at a level we haven’t seen since the heyday of Scott Niedermayer. Keith is capable of taking control of a game the way few defensemen can. With three goals in four games, Brent Seabrook has been nearly as effective at both ends. Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson are likely to draw the assignment of shutting down the Stamkos line. Their ability to close up the passing lanes and clear out the front of the net will pose a stiff challenge to Tampa Bay’s offense. No telling who’ll round out the group on the third pair, but it doesn’t really matter. This team’s chances depend on the continued effectiveness of its Big Four.
While the Hawks might have an edge, especially in terms of experience, the Bolts blueliners aren’t far behind. Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman have been dominant to this point of the playoffs. Hedman is growing up before our eyes this spring, maturing into the world-class puck-moving defender we expected him to become when he was taken second overall in 2009. Stralman, easily the best free agent signing of last summer, is so much more than the sum of his parts. He plays a quieter game than Hedman but his impact is impossible to ignore. He has the ability to make the smart, simple play nearly every time, and the calm he brings spreads to his teammates. There are some concerns behind the top pair, though. Braydon Coburn has been a black hole on the back end, posting a –7 rating and gruesome 38.7% Corsi rating. Jason Garrison has brought a big body and a nice presence in the offensive zone, but he’s spending too much time chasing the puck as well (41.5% Corsi). As veterans they’ll likely be given every chance to work through those problems in this final round, but don’t be surprised to see Nikita Nesterov work his way into more ice time. He’s been the team’s most dominant possession player (topping 57%) and has shown confidence and facility with the puck.
Corey Crawford gave up an average of three goals per game to the Ducks in the Western finals. Understandable, perhaps, given how effective Anaheim’s playoff-leading offense was this spring, but that’s still an eye-opening number as he enters a series against an even more dangerous Tampa Bay squad. He had only the one bad game in the series, though (Game 4), and was sharp during two long overtime games. He also did a nice job of allaying concerns about the strength of his glove hand, although his willingness to hump his rebounds out into the middle of the ice is something to watch.
Ben Bishop was a study in contrasts in the ECF. Over the course of the final five games of the series, he allowed five goals three times. That might have been lethal to the Lightning’s chances of advancing if he hadn’t shut out New York in his other two starts—both in New York’s own building, no less. Bishop’s ability to elevate his game to match the situation (he's the first goalie in NHL history to post shutouts in his first two Game 7 appearances) gives the Lightning hope, but his lack of consistency could be fatal against the Hawks.
Speaking of a study in contrasts, take a look at Tampa Bay’s special teams performance against the Rangers. The power play toyed with the Blueshirts, scoring on seven of 22 chances (32%). However, the penalty kill gave the edge away, allowing seven goals on 24 chances—including two each in Games 2, 3 and 4, for a lousy 70.8% effectiveness rating.
The Hawks scored five times with the extra man against the Ducks, including twice in their crucial Game 7 win. The PK was stout, allowing only three goals. Chicago has spent only 7.9 minutes per game on the penalty kill throughout the playoffs, the fourth-fewest of any team. The Lightning are averaging 11 minutes per game in the box, so discipline could be a factor.
Here’s the question you have to answer before you throw your lot in with the Lightning: Do you believe they will muster the same sort of defensive effort that they displayed against the Rangers in Game 7 and do it four times against the Blackhawks? Because that’s pretty much what it’s going to take for them to win this series. Full marks to the Bolts. They’ve shown tremendous resilience this postseason but I have to think that’s too much to expect, especially against a Chicago team that’s been there/done that twice before.
Blackhawks in 5.
Conn Smythe winner: Duncan Keith