After over 1100 games, we have finally reached the peak of the NHL season. The Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning survived seven-game series in their respective Conference Finals in order to advance to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.
It’s a tale of two teams as the Blackhawks return to the final for the third time since 2010 while the Lightning return for their second ever Stanley Cup appearance. Chicago has carved out a true dynasty – or as close to a dynasty that you can come to – in the salary cap era. The Blackhawks three Cup appearances include an addition to two Conference Final defeats (2009 & 2014) to pair with seven-straight playoff berths.
Tampa Bay came within one game of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, losing out to Boston at the TD Garden but have not seen such success since. Their first round exit last year at the hands of Montreal ended a two-year playoff drought. However, Tampa’s skilled core is similar to that of the Blackhawks as both teams have built through the top and middle of the draft effectively while supplementing their rosters via the trade market.
Why Tampa Will Win
Tampa Bay boasts the most lethal line in this year’s playoffs and Steven Stamkos isn’t even part of the trio. The Triplets – comprised of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat – have driven the Bolts through the first three rounds as Johnson appears to be a strong favorite for the Conn Smythe. Stamkos, along with Alex Killorn and Valteri Flippula gives Tampa an impressive one-two punch that has been very difficult to defend.
Victor Hedman has been a handful in each round as he’s played a 200-foot game and has been in on a number of vital scoring plays thus far. He’s been eating minutes for the Lightning but hasn’t been overloaded thanks to John Cooper’s penchant for dressing seven defensemen.
The seven defensemen, 12 forwards line up has allowed Cooper to limit matchups and stay in control of who his players are on the ice against and when. It has also given the Lightning an extra option on the back end in case of injury or poor play. While the decision is certainly unique, it has paid off in spades for the Bolts thus far.
Ben Bishop would probably be given the edge by most in the goaltending matchup this series and he’ll need to come through in the clutch to push Tampa Bay to their second Cup championship. He has had his struggles this postseason but has also shut things down when necessary. He may be the most important piece for Tampa as they enter the series.
Why Chicago Will Win
The Blackhawks are a well read book at this point. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook and company have all walked this path before. Nearly this exact roster was one goal from playing in the Cup Final last year and nothing should be expected to shake this group at this point.
Like Tampa Bay, Chicago’s depth makes them difficult to defend. When you can pick from a group of Toews, Kane, Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Andrew Shaw, Brandon Saad, Teuvo Teravainen, Antoine Vermette and Brad Richards, things are going well. The Hawks sport more than their fair share of 200-foot players and don’t be surprised to see one of Tampa’s two big lines shutout for most of this series.
The only potential hiccup for the Hawks could come on the backend. Keith, Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya have seen big minutes through the first three rounds and that isn’t about to change. While the Hawks have rotated others through, they’ve played four defensemen for a majority of their series. Should that fatigue factor catch up to them, it could be a problem. However, Duncan Keith may or may not be a hockey cyborg who does not tire, so don’t bet against that group just yet.
Corey Crawford’s play this postseason has been erratic. He was pulled from the Nashville series only to retake the net and lead a comeback in the first round. He has been solid but not spectacular through the second and third rounds and now faces another strong offensive group. Should he continue his strong play, he’ll tip the scales in Chicago’s favor. If he struggles, there may not be enough runway left for the Blackhawks to recover.
This ought to be an incredibly fun series. The Lightning have shown the ability to adapt to their opponents and play a very entertaining game. Chicago has been here and done that, but their impressive skillset makes them an easy favorite. While many will be quick to point to the goaltending as the biggest showdown, how Tampa handles Chicago’s depth is what will set this series apart for me.
If the Bolts manage to keep The Triplets and the Stamkos line clicking, they might just run away with the Cup. But if Chicago silences even one of those two groups, it will be an easy win for the Windy City. I’m not betting against the Blackhawks depth, Chicago in 7.