Every week, a group of SI.com staffers sits down for a discussion of the hockey world’s hot button issues. This week, Sarah Kwak, Michael Blinn, Sam Page and Al Muir look ahead to the Stanley Cup finals and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the Lightning and Blackhawks, potential surprise stars and our picks to win it all.
• Let’s take a look first at the Blackhawks. What do you see as the biggest strength and biggest weakness of this team heading into the finals?
MIKE BLINN: The Blackhawks’ set of top-six forwards matches up with any team in the NHL on any given day. Between Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Brad Richards and Brandon Saad, coach Joel Quenneville has a whole lot of toys to mix and match when he needs a goal (or really anything else) at any given point.
At the same time, the rest of the offensive corps is having some trouble providing the depth scoring that is sorely needed at this time of year. Bryan Bickell, who is being paid big bucks off a strong playoff showing just a few seasons ago, is struggling hard and there aren’t a whole lot more options waiting in the wings right now.
SARAH KWAK: Chicago’s biggest strength has to be its experience. Now in their third Cup finals in six years, nothing about this series will come as a surprise to any of the Hawks—on or off the ice. The final can be quite a hectic time for players—family flying in, ticket requests, spotlights and attention heretofore unseen—but by now the Blackhawks just call that “June.”
As for Chicago’s biggest weakness, their overworked defense played admirably against Anaheim’s rough and physical game. Tampa Bay brings a different challenge: speed, and lots of it. For all the minutes the Blackhawks top blue liners logged against the Ducks, they might feel much more taxed against the Lightning’s quick transition attack.
SAM PAGE: Their biggest strength is their leader. Jonathan Toews gives the Blackhawks a specific edge in this series because the Lightning haven’t seen a single physically-imposing first-line center yet in these playoffs. To reach the final, they beat the Canadiens and Rangers, two teams that are known for being small and shallow down the middle. Toews will allow the Blackhawks to overpower the Triplets line or neutralize the Steven Stamkos line, depending on the matchup.
Their biggest weakness is their defense depth. Heaven forbid they actually have to play their bottom pairing. Even before Michal Rozsival’s injury and Kimmo Timonen’s healthy scratch, the third pairing was poor. Kyle Cumisky and/or David Rundblad could easily cost the Hawks a game in this series.
AL MUIR: See, I know I listed their defense as an issue heading into the Anaheim series but having watched it I can’t see how anyone can view that as a potential problem in the final. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson, those guys were load-bearing beams in that series. Towers of strength who seemed unfamiliar with the concept of limited human endurance. Seriously, they were amazing. And sure, Tampa brings a different type of attack and that will be a challenge but given what we’ve seen of this D corps through three rounds, I have no doubt they can overcome it.
As for a weakness, well, I’ve become a Corey Crawford apologist of late. I really like his game. I think he’s a big part of their success and, despite what some Hawks fans say, he’s not just someone who basks in the reflection of Toews and Kane and Keith. That said, on a team this deep, he’s probably the one area of concern. I think he’ll be fine, but I’m not blind to the possibility that if someone is going to jam a stick in Chicago’s spokes, he’s the guy.
• Same question for the Lightning. Biggest strength and weakness.
KWAK: As I said, Tampa Bay’s biggest advantage will be speed—though Chicago’s attack isn’t exactly molasses. If the Lightning can make clean and quick entries they will have an easier time finding success against Crawford than they did against Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
Tampa Bay’s biggest weakness is goalie Ben Bishop, who is tall … and lately, that’s about it. In the last three games of the series against New York, Bishop has only been good enough, leaning heavily on stout team defense in Games 5 and 7 to win. Though he was credited with two shutouts, they were largely earned by the team.
PAGE: I agree that Bishop is the weak spot — I can’t even think of another for the sake of argument. Their strength will be individual creativity. As well as the Triplets line has played together, the Lightning boast several scorers who can create goals independent of teammate play. Whether through Tyler Johnson’s speed, Stamkos’ shot or Nikita Kucherov’s moves, their ability to win one-on-one will help them against a Blackhawks defense that’s strong as a unit but has weak links.
BLINN: Going into the conference finals, I had the Lightning defensive unit as the most underrated of the four remaining teams, and it’s a big part of what got them to the Cup finals. Jon Cooper has a deeper set of blueliners than his counterpart, and he’s not afraid to roll them out. Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman have shut down some pretty good forwards through three rounds, and they’ve done it while adding some points of their own along the way (case in point: Stralman’s thread-the-needle assist on Ryan Callahan’s Game 6 goal against the Rangers). They also help cover up Bishop’s shortcomings, which include rebound control issues and some pretty shaky confidence. Asking the six-foot-seven goalie to play just well enough to win has been a bit too much for him at times through three rounds.
MUIR: Since no one’s mentioned them, I’ll point out Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn. While others soak up the limelight (and the credit) they’re like the George Harrisons of the Lightning, the bastions of quiet excellence. They’re both terrific 200-foot competitors who can make plays anywhere on the ice and be sneakily effective supporting their better-known linemates.
As for a weakness, yeah, it’s Bishop. If I’m a Lightning fan, I’m seriously concerned that he coughed up five goals in each of his past three starts at Amalie Arena. Aside from him, I’m surprised no one mentioned Tampa Bay’s lack of forward depth. The top-six has scored 20 of the team’s past 21 goals. The bottom-six (or five, given that Jon Cooper will likely dress 11 forwards and 7 defensemen to start the series) is as threatening as an NHL diving fine. Sure, they can bring some energy to make a positive impact.
• Someone always emerges as an unexpected hero in the finals. Give us one player to watch on the Blackhawks.
KWAK: I don’t know if he’d be THAT unexpected, but I’ll say defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson will be a hero if he (and Duncan Keith) can silence The Triplets. Tampa Bay’s pick-your-poison offense has to be neutralized in order for Chicago to win, and Hjalmarsson’s ability as a premier shutdown defender will be pivotal, especially on the penalty kill where the Lightning are lethal.
PAGE: Scott Darling is a player to watch on the Blackhawks. He bailed them out in round one—it could happen again.
BLINN: I’d say the Cup finals are a pretty good place for everyone to fully experience Tuevo Time. Teravainen has shown some flash and dash, and now’s the time for him to put it all together in the spotlight.
MUIR: Man, I gotta stop going last. Alright, give me Brad Richards. The former Lightning star has that ol’ gunslinger aura about him. He knows he’s coming to the end of the line and this might be his last chance. I think he comes up big against his former team.
• Alright, how about one on the Lightning?
KWAK: Ondrej Palat, perhaps the least celebrated of the famed Triplets, is a study in understated excellence. He had some breakthrough moments in the conference finals against New York, and I think his blend of hard work and skills along the boards will be invaluable against Chicago.
MUIR: How about Nikita Nesterov? He’s got some offensive chops, is wildly confident in contrast to his level of experience and he’s proved that he can make an impact on Tampa’s possession game. I think he breaks out in this series
PAGE: I’ll go with someone who has been mostly scratched in the playoffs so far but could be called upon if Tampa Bay is desperate: Jonathan Drouin.
BLINN: For the Bolts, I’ve seen a lot of media folk saying variations of the same thing: Hedman is going to be a stud. Well guess what? The future is now. We’re about to see the big Swede state his case to be named among the NHL’s elite defensemen and he’ll do it on a national stage.
• So who wins the Cup and who scores the winning goal?
KWAK: I’m going to go with Chicago in five. Game winning goal to Brandon Saad.
BLINN: There’s no way this doesn’t go the distance. Who wins it for Chicago? Gimme Showtime himself, Patrick Kane.
PAGE: Tampa in seven. Tyler Johnson’s goal.