Finally, after three days off since Game 7 against Anaheim, the Blackhawks will begin their track-meet with the Lightning tonight in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay. Ever since the Hawks prevailed over the Ducks on Saturday to punch their ticket to the next round, all we’ve been reading and hearing is how both teams are fast, the Blackhawks have better depth, and the Blackhawks also have more experience. All of that is true, but now we finally get to see it all play out on the ice.
As I mentioned and you may have heard, the Blackhawks have been on this stage before in recent years and won. Twice. The Lightning, despite having won the Cup in 2004, have not. Only four of their players have ever played in the Stanley Cup Final, and all four lost. Needless to say, the Blackhawks have the major advantage when it comes to experience between the two teams. It is imperative that they use that to their advantage tonight, and for the remainder of the series.
Because of that experience factor, I would expect the Blackhawks to come out as the more calm, cool, and collected group of the two once the puck drops tonight at roughly 7:00pm CT.
Winning the first game of the Stanley Cup Final usually proves to be big, as the winner of Game 1 has gone on to win the series 58 times out of the 75 series played. Whether or not that statistic really means anything is up to you to decide. Still, this is obviously a big game that the Hawks would like to win. Here’s how they can do just that:
- Survive the first ten minutes. You would have to imagine the Lightning will come out of the gates flying tonight being on their home ice. And when I say flying, I’m not totally joking. This is one of the fastest teams in all of hockey and they use their speed to their advantage. It will be important that the Blackhawks weather the storm in the first ten minutes and come out of the first half of the period tied or winning. This is where the Hawks’ experience could really pay off in a hurry. They know better than anyone how to handle a situation like this.
- Limit at least one of Tampa’s top two lines. This one goes for the whole series actually, but it stands just as true for Game 1. We’re not sure yet which lines of the Hawks will be matched up against which of the Lightning, but whichever two end up seeing the majority of the Lightning’s top two lines will need to quickly find a way to slow at least one of them down. Tampa Bay almost solely relies on their top six forwards to do all of their scoring, so shutting down or at least limiting just one of their top lines should give them problems. Putting pressure on their bottom six to score is just what the Hawks want.
- Get productive minutes from Rundblad and Cumiskey. It would appear that these two will remain in the lineup for Game 1, meaning it will be the first time either of them have played in the Stanley Cup Final. If both Rundblad and Cumiskey can play the way they did in games 6 and 7 against Anaheim (smart, composed, responsible), they’ll have done their jobs and given Joel Quenneville just what he’s looking for.
- Receive a solid outing from Crawford. As I mentioned a bit before, the Lightning will, or at least should, come out going a hundred miles per hour to start this game tonight looking to score the first goal. Odds are that the Blackhawks will need to weather a storm or two early on, meaning Corey Crawford has to be on his game. He’s come up big in big games before, so I’m not too concerned about him being able to do it again.
- 1st line needs to stay hot. Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane ripped apart the Ducks ever since being put together on the top line in Game 6 of the WCF. It would be huge if they could pick up right where they left off and do the same tonight. Putting heavy pressure on Tampa Bay right away will give the Hawks some momentum and plant a seed of doubt into Tampa’s heads. If this line, or any line of the Hawks for that matter, can come up with the game’s first goal, that will be a huge lift moving forward in the game. Tampa Bay is 9-0 (I’m pretty certain…) this postseason when scoring first, so getting the first goal tonight could be big for either team.
Both teams are going to be pretty jacked up to start tonight’s game, but both will probably go through a bit of a “feeling out” process as well. Neither of these teams are real familiar with the other and so they’ll both probably wait for someone to make the first move before going into attack mode. We could be in for a 2-1 or 3-2 score tonight. Having said that, however, of Tampa’s five home losses this postseason (that’s a lot), four of them have been by four goals. So we could just as well get a 6-2 Blackhawks victory.
The bottom line here is that it will be important for the Blackhawks to play a solid first ten minutes of this game to help set the tone for the remainder of the game. Tampa Bay has not been a good home team during these playoffs, so taking advantage of that tonight could prove to be big.