TAMPA, Fla. — Forget the notion that on some high floor on Sixth Avenue, NHL executives were performing a ritualistic dance to secure a New York-Chicago final. Apart from the favorable market shares and the Original Six romance, a Rangers-Blackhawks final would have been better for pictures than for the actual product.
If the game itself is what the NHL wants to sell, then it again has lucked out because it won’t get much better than this showdown between the Lightning and Blackhawks, set to begin on Wednesday at Amalie Arena. Two teams with awe-inspiring offensive skills, Tampa Bay and Chicago play a style that promises to get fans on their feet and viewers wearing out the rewind buttons on their remote controls. In the ever-unofficial measure of did-you-just-see-that moments—whether it’s Tampa’s Triplets coolly converting on slick give-and-go’s, or Chicago’s roster of human highlight reels—it’s hard to find teams that can top them.
“It’s great for the game that the two teams in the final… have this amount of skill, have this amount of high-quality offensive players,” Chicago’s shifty winger Patrick Kane said. “The game [is] more exciting when you see teams like this win.”
Like a lush contemplating his next cocktail, this series has the potential to teeter the line between wildly entertaining and a little out of control. It very well could have a foot in both. And either would be great for the league, which had seen playoff scoring drop to 5.12 goals per game, two-tenths of a point lower than the NHL’s regular season average this year.
With all the skill present on both rosters—Tampa Bay features Steven Stamkos and the Triplets (Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov) while Chicago trots out Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Kane in Chicago—plenty of goals will be scored. And a glut of offense could lead to a most memorable final.
Say what you want about exciting 2-1 games, goals have played a big part in many of the best series in recent memory. Take last year’s Western Conference finals between Los Angeles and Chicago: The teams combined for 51 goals over seven games (7.29 goals per game). And four times, the winning team scored at least five goals.
Or, say, recall the first-round series between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in 2012, the one that ended with Flyers then-coach Peter Laviolette anointing Claude Giroux “the best player in the world” within earshot of Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. That series managed to cram 56 goals into six games. It was sloppy. The goaltending vexed both coaches. But in the end, nobody wished for more hooking, holding or otherwise stifling of the league’s biggest offensive stars.
That’s what this series between Tampa Bay and Chicago could be. And it’s not just about the talent up front. It may not be fair to question a Vezina Trophy finalist and a Stanley Cup winning-goalie, but consider Philadelphia’s Ilya Bryzgalov was a Vezina runner-up in 2010, and in hindsight, Marc-Andre Fleury’s current reputation may have been more defined by that ’12 series than his 2009 Stanley Cup.
Both the Lightning’s Ben Bishop and Blackhawks’ Corey Crawford have had their trials this postseason. Crawford lost the starting job in net during the first round against Nashville for four games, and backup Scott Darling earned three of Chicago’s wins in that series. Bishop has been yanked in each of the last two series, and has allowed five goals in three of his last five games. Though their teammates like to call them the best players on their team, they could be soft spots for dynamic opposing offenses.
Since regaining his crease, however, Crawford has been mostly excellent. But the Lightning’s postseason has been defined by toppling mighty goaltending (Detroit’s Petr Mrazek, Montreal’s Carey Price and New York’s Henrik Lundqvist). And Chicago has taken down two of three Vezina finalists in the Predators’ Pekka Rinne and Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk on its road to the final.
Perhaps there will be a so-called “feeling-out” period to begin, but expect that once the first goal comes, there will be plenty more to follow. “They’re a fast team with tons of skill,” Crawford said Tuesday. “They play at a high tempo. They have a five-man offensive attack. We almost play the same way. It’s going to be a fun series.”
Indeed, let the fun begin.