After Saturday night’s rather dominating victory over the Ducks in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final, the Blackhawks had punched their ticket to their third Stanley Cup Final appearance in the last six years. No other team in hockey can say they’ve done that. Opposing the Blackhawks will be the Tampa Bay Lightning; a team many had picked to come out of the East well before this season ever began. If a hockey lover could have hand picked their dream Stanley Cup Final, this one may very well have been it. Both teams are highly skilled, fast, exciting, and dress big name players. There aren’t many other matchups that could consist of players such as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Victor Hedman, just to name a few. Just consider ourselves lucky that we get to witness such a star-studded final.
Let’s start with the Blackhawks. The Hawks come into this year’s SCF after having knocked off the Predators, Wild, and Ducks in the first three rounds. One could argue that the Blackhawks have had to travel the tougher road up to this point, but that’s an argument not worth getting into at the moment.
Up front, the Blackhawks own what many consider to be the deepest group of forwards in the NHL. Their top two lines are nearly unparalleled, and their third line often plays like another top two line. What eventually helped put the Blackhawks over the top against Anaheim was that they kept getting contributions from their bottom two lines. If you look at the seven games that were played in the WCF, the Hawks got continuous scoring and production from those bottom six forwards. Whether it was Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw, Antoine Vermette, or Teuvo Teravainen, those guys kept coming up with big plays and goals. The Ducks simply couldn’t match that. And now that Kane and Toews have been reunited on the top line, the Blackhawks offense has looked nearly unstoppable.
Defensively, a lot has been made of the number of minutes that the Hawks’ top four d-men are playing. Clearly, however, that hasn’t fazed those guys one bit. Duncan Keith is coming off of one of his best ever playoff series, as is Johnny Oduya, and Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson just continue to be themselves and make the big plays offensively and defensively. Not many teams own as solid of a top four as the Blackhawks. Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad both played pretty well in games 6 and 7 against the Ducks, which is a good sign moving forward.
In net, Corey Crawford is back to his 2013 form. He currently owns a .919 save percentage and has single handedly won the Blackhawks a couple of games this postseason. His rebound control has seemingly gotten better and better as these playoffs have progressed, and when he is absorbing the puck like he did in Game 7, for example, it’s tough to score on him.
As for the Lightning, they were the best offensive team during the regular season, and they haven’t slowed down all that much in the playoffs. They have three players with at least 17 points this postseason, including Tyler Johnson who leads the playoffs with 21. His 12 goals are also a playoff best up to this point. Tampa Bay’s top two lines have been nearly unstoppable for long stretches during these playoffs, and if that continues, they’ll have a chance in this series. The problem with their forwards is their bottom six. Ryan Callahan leads them in points with just 4. To compare, Patrick Sharp leads the Blackhawks’ bottom six with 12. The Lightning absolutely must receive more from their bottom two lines if they want to succeed in this series.
On the back end Tampa owns a pretty solid group of defensemen. Led by their top pairing of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, the Lightning have speed and defensive reliability with most of their d-men. Hedman, Stralman, and Nikita Nesterov all have recorded more points than any of Tampa’s bottom six forwards. This is a defensive group that likes to be active in the offensive zone and tends to take some chances when most wouldn’t anticipate them to. When you take into account their top two lines, the Lightning’s ability to also produce offense from the blue line makes their offense lethal at times.
Between the pipes for Tampa Bay stands Ben Bishop and his 6’7″ frame. His .920 save percentage is one point higher than that of Corey Crawford. Bishop, while he has looked quite “leaky” at times (especially against New York), has also turned in some big time performances. He recorded shutouts in games 5 and 7 against the Rangers, with both of those games being played in New York. That should tell you that this guy doesn’t get easily rattled when under pressure to perform.
This is going to be an extremely fast-paced series featuring two teams that like to play that way. The key to winning will come down to depth and special teams. On the one hand, Chicago has the definite advantage in the depth department. Their bottom two lines have been phenomenal this postseason, and Tampa’s have not. On the other hand, the Lightning have been the better team on both the powerplay and penalty kill thus far.
Even though Tampa Bay has the better special teams (statistically), the Blackhawks are getting just enough production out of theirs to still be successful. Add in Chicago’s depth at forward and the entire team’s level of experience in the Stanley Cup Final, and it’s nearly impossible to pick against them.
Blackhawks in six.