With Duncan Keith playing the best hockey of his career, Jonathan Toews at the top of his game and Corey Crawford doing the job that’s required, the Chicago Blackhawks are on the verge of their third Stanley Cup championship in six years.
However, after surviving the big, talented Anaheim Ducks, the Hawks will now head into a buzz saw in Tampa, Fla.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that features Steven Stamkos’ skill, Ben Bishop’s size in net and a gifted group of young, talented legs, took out the New York Rangers in seven games and are lying in wait for a Blackhawks team that has already played some remarkable hockey just to get to the 2015 Stanley Cup final.
In Tampa, where a sunny community of retirees and beach lovers has turned the downtown into “Hockeytown,” the Lightning is ready to corral their second Cup in 11 years. In fact, the folks in tampa are so crazy about their Lightning, that Garth Brooks had to cancel two concerts to make room for the hockey team.
And make no mistake, the Bolts have a ton of talent.
Besides Stamkos (43 goals in the regular season), the Lightning also boasts “The Triplets Line” of Tyler Johnson, 25 (league-leading 12 goals and 21 points in the playoffs), Nikita Kucherov, 22 (nine goals and 19 points) and Ondrej Palat, 24 (seven goals and 15 points). Throw in Valterri Flippula, Alex Killorn and Ryan Callahan and this Lightning club has all the tools it needs up front.
The Hawks, meanwhile, have a first line that’s been lights out – Toews with Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad. That line tallied 15 goals in the last four games against the Ducks. Throw in Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Andrew Shaw and the Hawks have the ability to put up some crooked numbers.
“This will be another great test,” Toews told NBC Sports. “If we can remember the other games we had against them this regular season, if that’s any sort of foreshadowing, it’s going to be a tough one. But we’ll be ready for ‘em.”
Chicago was 1-1-0 against Tampa in the regular season, winning 3-2 in a shootout on Nov. 11 and losing 4-0 on Feb. 27. Lightning goalie Ben Bishop stopped 65 of 67 shots this season while Stamkos had two goals and three points.
“We never really stopped believing in ourselves,” said Patrick Sharp on Saturday night. “We were hearing a lot of things about our team in the regular season. Seems like we put things back together at the right time and we’re back in the finals with this group. We know what we have in this room, we believe in each other, we believe in the organization and it really matter what other people say.”
What they have in “this room” is one of the best defensive units in the game.
Two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith has been spectacular and many think he’s Conn Smythe Trophy material. Keith leads all defensemen in the playoffs with 18 points, including 16 assists. Brent Seabrook has six goals and played terrifically in his own zone. Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson have been as good as could ever be expected.
For Tampa, the first team to play four “Original Six” teams in one Stanley Cup tournament (Detroit, Montreal, the Rangers and Chicago), will rely on Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman to do most of the defensive work. Veterans Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn have to be more consistent and that’s why the Hawks have the edge on defense.
The Blackhawks trailed the Ducks 3-2 in the Western Conference final before winning Game 6 at United Center and Game 7 at Honda Center. Chicago is 8-0 in series that were tied 2-2 since the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Lightning is 9-0 when scoring first in the postseason. That’s why Stamkos and The Triplets have been so instrumental in Tampa’s success.
Ben Bishop (6-foot-7, 210 pounds) for Tampa and Corey Crawford for the Hawks will handle the bulk of the goaltending work. In fact, if their backups play at all, it’s because Bishop or Crawford were benched midway through a game.
Special teams always play a huge role in the post-season but neither the Hawks nor the Lightning has been outstanding. The Hawks power play has been inconsistent while the penalty-killing unit ranks 11th out of 16 playoff clubs at 75.5 per cent. Meanwhile, the Lightning’s power play is fourth overall in the playoffs at 22.2 per cent while the penalty kill is eighth at 81.2 per cent. The winning team, however, will have the best special teams units in the final – count on it.
Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final is Wednesday at Amalie Arena (7 p.m. CST; NBC, CBC) in downtown Tampa. The Lightning has home-ice advantage because it had six more points than Chicago during the regular season (108-102).
Game 2 is at Tampa Bay next Saturday. Game 3 is at United Center on June 8, followed by Game 4 on June 10. Game 5, if necessary, is at Tampa Bay on June 13; Game 6 is at Chicago on June 15; and Game 7 is at Tampa Bay on June 17.
Our pick: Blackhawks in Six Games.
Brandon Saad—Jonathan Toews—Patrick Kane
Bryan Bickell—Brad Richards—Marian Hossa
Patrick Sharp—Antoine Vermette—Teuvo Teravainen
Andrew Desjardins—Marcus Kruger—Andrew Shaw
Duncan Keith—Niklas Hjalmarsson
Kyle Cumiskey—Brent Seabrook
Johnny Oduya—David Rundblad
Alex Killorn—Valtteri Filppula—Steven Stamkos
Ondrej Palat—Tyler Johnson—Nikita Kucherov
J.T. Brown—Cedric Paquette—Ryan Callahan
Brenden Morrow—Brian Boyle—Vladislav Namestnikov
Victor Hedman—Anton Stralman
Jason Garrison—Braydon Coburn
Matt Carle—Andrej Sustr