The Chicago Blackhawks might feel like they're looking at a younger version of themselves when they step onto the ice against the Tampa Bay Lightning for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).
Each team is driven by star power. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford have carried the Blackhawks through three rounds in the Western Conference, including a 5-3 victory against the Anaheim Ducks in Game 7 of the conference final on Saturday. Tampa Bay's top-six forwards, led by the "Triplets" line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, and captain Steven Stamkos, have scored more than 80 percent of the Lightning's goals in the first three rounds, and Ben Bishop leads all goaltenders in this year's playoffs with three shutouts, including 2-0 victories on the road in Games 5 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers.
Each team relies on speed and puck possession but can shut down opponents when the game is on the line. Chicago is 32-0-0 in the regular season and playoffs when leading after two periods. The Lightning are 9-0-0 this spring when scoring first, and all three of Bishop's shutouts have been 2-0 wins.
The one major edge Chicago has is postseason experience; the core of this team won Stanley Cup in 2010 and 2013. Tampa Bay hasn't made the Final since 2004, when it won its only championship.
The Lightning have won three playoff rounds for the first time in a decade, but Bishop knows there's still much left to do.
"We still haven't accomplished anything yet," Bishop said after the Game 7 win in New York. "We're four wins away. It's going to be probably the hardest four wins of all of our careers. We know there's a lot ahead of us."
Tampa Bay went 1-0-1 against Chicago during the regular season, and Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville knows that his team will have to be at its best to slow down the speedy Lightning.
"Watching their series against the Rangers, they have a lot of options with their skill, how dangerous they can be with putting pucks in the net," Quenneville said after the win against Anaheim on Saturday.
Quenneville also has respect for the accomplishments of Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper.
"We had some interesting games against them," Quenneville said. "Jon Cooper, I know him a little bit. I have to commend him on what he's done, getting to the Final."
The Blackhawks survived seven games against the bigger, more physical Ducks. The Lightning play a much different style, but Keith feels the Blackhawks can handle any style of play an opponent throws at them.
"I think we're moving on for a reason, showing a lot of character, using our speed and skill," he said. "I don't think anybody's tired anymore this time of year right now. I think we're just excited to move on and be able to beat a great team like Anaheim and have the opportunity to try and beat another great team in Tampa Bay."
The Lightning have been led by their top-six forwards, who have accounted for 45 of Tampa Bay's 55 goals. The Lightning have received four goals from the remaining eight forwards that have played at least one game in the playoffs, but secondary scoring has not been an issue because of the production from the top-six.
Although it's technically considered Tampa Bay's second line, the "Triplets" line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov has been dynamic throughout the playoffs. Johnson leads the Lightning with 12 goals and 21 points. Kucherov is tied for first on the team with 10 assists and is second with 19 points. Palat has seven goals and 15 points.
The Lightning's first line consists of center Valtteri Filppula, Steven Stamkos on the right wing and Alex Killorn on the left wing.
Stamkos started the playoffs in the middle (he's been a center for most of his career), but he was struggling to score so coach Jon Cooper freed him up by moving him to the wing. Stamkos responded with seven goals and 14 points in his next 12 games. He scored in four straight games against the Rangers.
Killorn also has seven goals, including two game-winners, and 16 points. He scored the game-winning goal in Game 7 against the Rangers. Filppula has 11 points.
Tampa Bay has regularly used a lineup featuring 11 forwards and seven defensemen. The remaining five forwards (Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan, Cedric Paquette, J.T. Brown and Brenden Morrow) are relied on more for checking and energy than scoring. Paquette and Boyle are key on the penalty kill.
Vladislav Namestnikov, Jonathan Marchessault and Jonathan Drouin have also played.
The Blackhawks have the deepest, most talented collection of forwards in the NHL, and the group might still be improving.
Kane was expected to miss up to 12 weeks with a fractured clavicle he sustained in late February. He actually missed seven and was ready for Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round against the Nashville Predators. Kane has 10 goals and 20 points in 17 games, showing no ill effects from the injury.
Kane moved to the top line for the final two games of the Western Conference Final, joining captain Jonathan Toews and emerging star Brandon Saad to form a trio that devastated the Ducks. Toews is second on the Blackhawks with nine goals and 18 points, including five goals in the last four games against the Ducks.
When Kane isn't with Toews and Saad, he's typically on the second line with Brad Richards and Bryan Bickell. Richards will be a big story in this series, playing against the team that drafted him and with whom he won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2004. Marian Hossa was the player who moved down to the second line for Kane and he remains one of the top two-way forwards in the NHL.
Patrick Sharp is not a "third-line player" but he, Antoine Vermette and Teuvo Teravainen have comprised the third line for all but one game since the start of the second round. Teravainen is blossoming during these playoffs, and his two-way play and passing ability has added another quality player to an already stacked group. He and Sharp have been great together.
Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw and Andrew Desjardins could be a third line for some playoff teams, but they make up the fourth unit for Chicago. Kruger and Shaw both see lots of special-teams work as well.
The Blackhawks have Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom in reserve if needed. Versteeg played a lot on the second line this season but has only played once in the past two rounds.
Chicago has faced two of the three Vezina Trophy finalists (Pekka Rinne and Devan Dubnyk) and a third goaltender (Frederik Andersen) who had a .925 save percentage through the first two rounds. Rinne had a .909 save percentage against the Blackhawks. Dubnyk and Andersen each had a .901.
Tampa Bay's defense starts with one of the best top pairings in the NHL in Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman.
Hedman has shown his array of skill and power in the playoffs. It's as if the 24-year-old who was the No. 2 pick in the 2009 NHL Draft is coming of age this postseason. He has been excellent on both ends of the ice and his skating is something to marvel at. He leads Lightning defensemen with 10 points and a plus-11 rating, and he has a 54.98 shot-attempts percentage (SAT).
Stralman's steady, calming, almost pulse-free demeanor has served Tampa Bay well in the biggest games. Stralman has seven points and a 53.50 SAT percentage. His presence allows Hedman to feel as though he can unleash himself on the rush.
The second pair of Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn provides a bit of everything, from physicality to stick skills to heavy shots. The only concern is they have defended far more than any of the Lightning's other defenseman (Garrison 41.95 SAT; Coburn 39.36 SAT).
Matthew Carle and Andrej Sustr make up the third pair. They have been steady and physical, but perhaps a little too turnover prone.
The Lightning like to use seven defensemen to balance out the minutes and get Nikita Nesterov involved. Although he's the seventh defensemen, he has seven points and leads the Lightning with a 57.28 SAT percentage. Nesterov plays mostly in offensive situations and is averaging 11:37 of ice time per game.
The Blackhawks lost Michal Rozsival to a broken ankle in Game 4 of a second-round sweep of the Minnesota Wild. Coach Joel Quenneville was already using No. 6 defenseman Kimmo Timonen sparingly, but he has been leaning on the top four even more without Rozsival.
Luckily for Quenneville, the Blackhawks have one of the best groups of top-four defensemen in the League. It starts with Duncan Keith, who is a two-time Norris Trophy winner and might be playing better than he ever has during the 2015 playoffs.
Keith has 18 points in 17 games and is averaging more than 31 minutes per game. He should be a leading contender for the Conn Smythe as the Final begins.
Brent Seabrook has been Keith's partner for a long time, but Quenneville has been mixing and matching since Rozsival was hurt. Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson are each averaging more than 26 minutes per game.
Seabrook has six goals and 10 points, while Hjalmarsson is probably the Blackhawks' second-best defenseman at this point. Johnny Oduya struggled at times during the regular season, but he's averaging more than 25 minutes per game in the playoffs and has been solid.
Timonen was a trade-deadline addition, and though it was an incredible story for him to return after dealing with blood clot issues, David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey passed him on the depth chart during the conference finals. Rundblad had a shaky Game 1 and was benched for Cumiskey, but returned later in the series and played better in limited duty.
Cumiskey has been pretty solid, including some solid work with the puck. The Lightning will hope to exploit Chicago's bottom two defensemen when they can. The Ducks tried to pound the Blackhawks' top defensemen but they survived. Maybe the Lightning's speed will be a problem for some tired and beat up bodies.
All Ben Bishop has done in the playoffs is answer his critics, who have been quite vociferous at every turn. There has been lots of talk about Bishop's glove hand, rebound control and general inconsistency, but every time he got knocked down, he has responded with a strong performance.
Bishop is 7-1 with a 1.25 goals-against average, .951 save percentage and two shutouts in games after losses in the playoffs. He is 12-8 with a .920 save percentage and 2.15 GAA overall in the playoffs. He set a couple of NHL records along the way.
Bishop became the first goalie in NHL history to send his team to the Cup Final with a road shutout (2-0 in Game 7 against the Rangers). He also became the first goalie in NHL history to have shutouts in each of his first two Game 7 appearances (Game 7 vs. Detroit, Game 7 vs. New York).
In addition, Bishop became the first goalie in NHL history to earn road shutouts in Games 5 and 7 of one playoff series (26 saves in 2-0 win in Game 5 vs. New York; 22 saves in 2-0 win in Game 7 vs. New York).
The bad part is that Bishop allowed five goals in each of three games in the Eastern Conference Final.
Corey Crawford was benched during the opening round, but he rebounded against the Wild and the Ducks. He is 9-5 with a .919 save percentage and a 2.56 goals-against average during the 2015 playoffs.
Crawford was particularly sharp during two long overtime games in the conference finals, and then stopped 65 of 70 shots in Games 6 and 7 to close out the series. He has had lapses, including two games with five goals allowed or more in this postseason and a stretch of 25 goals allowed in six games to end Chicago's postseason run in 2014 against the Los Angeles Kings.
The Blackhawks went to backup Scott Darling during the Nashville series. Darling won Game 1 in relief and started Games 3 through 6 before Crawford won in relief of him to close out the series. Darling had strong numbers as the backup this season.
Crawford could join Jonathan Quick as the only starting goalies to win the Stanley Cup twice in the past 14 seasons.
Cooper is trying to continue a unique trend in his coaching career this postseason. In almost every one of his stops along his way to the NHL, Cooper has won a championship in his second full season in the city. This is his second full season with the Lightning; he was hired on March 25, 2013.
Most recently, Cooper won the Calder Cup in his second season coaching in the American Hockey League. Playing for him on the Norfolk Admirals in 2011-12 were Johnson, Palat and Killorn.
Cooper also won championships in his second full season in the United States Hockey League and North American Hockey League. He did it at the junior level in two different places.
He has pushed all the right buttons since being hired by the Lightning. He has also gained enough experience through this playoff run to feel as though he can match his coaching wits and IQ against anyone.
Arguably Cooper's best move in the playoffs was moving Stamkos to the wing, which couldn't have been an easy thing to do considering Stamkos has made his career at center. Cooper played a hunch and it has worked out. He has also discovered the Lightning operate better with 11 forwards and seven defensemen than they do with the traditional 12-6 set up.
Quenneville has to be considered one of the top two or three coaches in the NHL in 2015. He has a chance to win the Stanley Cup for the third time, which would make him the 10th coach in NHL history to do so and the fourth, along with Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour and Glen Sather, to do so since the League expanded beyond six teams. He needs 29 wins to pass Arbour and move into second place to Bowman in League history.
Quenneville is the steady hand of the Chicago machine. He did not alter his approach during the conference finals, trusting his top four defensemen would survive the physical approach by the Ducks.
Quenneville does benefit from having better chess pieces to move around than most, but putting Kane with Toews and Saad for the final two games was a move the Ducks had no response for.
The Blackhawks were out in front of the analytics revolution, and Quenneville has preached puck possession and has been optimizing their output with zone starts for several years.
Tampa Bay did not get or need a power play to win Game 7 against the Rangers, but its power play was effective through the first six games of the series, going 7-for-22 (32 percent).
However, the Lightning struggled on the penalty kill until Game 7, when they killed off two penalties in the second period when the score was 0-0. The Lightning's PK against the Rangers was 17-for-24 (70.8 percent).
Overall, the Lightning's power play in the playoffs is operating at 22 percent (16-for-72); that includes a 0-for-23 run from Game 3 against the Red Wings through Game 1 against the Canadiens. In their 12 games since, the Lightning have gone 14-for-38 (36.8 percent).
Palat has four power-play goals, Kucherov has two, and Johnson, Stamkos and Filppula each have two. Johnson and Stamkos each has eight points on the power play.
The Lightning's PK was 39-for-45 (86.6 percent) before the conference final. The percentage dipped to 81.2 after the Conference Final. However, Tampa Bay has three shorthanded goals, the same number as the Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks converted less than 18 percent of their power plays during the regular season, but have nudged that rate up to 19.6 percent in the postseason. Chicago is willing to use its two units nearly equally because of its depth.
The top unit typically consists of Toews, Kane and Shaw up front with Sharp and Keith on the points. That leaves Hossa, Saad and Bickell up front with Richards and Seabrook on the points for the second unit. Toews leads the Blackhawks with three power-play goals, including one in Game 7 against the Ducks.
Chicago was one of the top penalty-killing teams during the regular season, erasing 83.4 percent of foes' extra-man opportunities. The Blackhawks have scuffled a little during the postseason and the PK is 75.5 percent through three rounds.
The top-four forwards on the PK are Kruger, Toews, Hossa and Saad. Quenneville leans on the top-four defensemen almost exclusively when killing penalties. When one of them went in the box during the conference final, the Blackhawks tried to kill off the two minutes using only the other three. Timonen, Cumiskey and Rundblad have combined for 51 seconds of PK time in the playoffs.
Anton Stralman -- Cooper admittedly has run out of words to describe how important Stralman is to the Lightning. He is by far their steadiest defenseman, and he is a big reason why Hedman is able to do the marvelous things on the ice that he does.
"He is the total package, and he can play in every situation," Cooper said.
The importance of Stralman's calm and consistency -- does he ever make the wrong read? -- manifests itself in the biggest games. The Lightning have played some big ones already, but it doesn't get any bigger than the Stanley Cup Final, and Stralman is no stranger to the stage.
Stralman played in the Final for the Rangers last spring and was arguably their best defenseman against the Los Angeles Kings. Not surprisingly, it was because of his steady, calm, consistent, patient approach.
"His demeanor doesn't really change from off the ice to on the ice," Callahan said. "It seems like he's never really under pressure, always making that calm, smart play. A lot of guys feed off of that, his energy and his calmness."
Corey Crawford -- The Blackhawks will believe they have the advantage at forward and on defense in this series, even with the lack of depth on the blue line. Crawford and Bishop have had pretty similar numbers the past two seasons, with Bishop being a little better last year and a little worse during the regular season in 2014-15.
Maybe Crawford's experience at this stage gives him an edge, but they are pretty equal all things considered. The Blackhawks probably don't need Crawford to outplay Bishop to win the series, but they almost certainly will win if he does. What they really need him to avoid is a mini-slump like he had against the Kings in 2014.
LIGHTNING WILL WIN IF ...
They defend first and feed their rush game off of that defense.
The Lightning have a lot of high-flying, skilled forwards who can dazzle you with their speed, passing and shooting, but they have discovered that the best way to win in the playoffs is to focus on defending first.
It has been a roller-coaster ride to get there, but that's how they won Games 6 and 7 against the Red Wings, Game 6 against the Canadiens, and Games 5 and 7 against the Rangers. Those are the Lightning's five most important victories of the playoffs; they allowed three goals in those five games.
"You want to shoot it out, which our guys like to do, we can shoot it out," Cooper said. "You want to win, want to go to the Stanley Cup Final, then you have to play 'D.' It's a choice.
"They made a choice. Do you want to go to the Final or not? And this is what happened."
BLACKHAWKS WILL WIN IF …
Those top four defensemen hold up. It should be an exciting series with skill and speed everywhere on both sides. Keith, Hjalmarsson, Seabrook and Oduya outlasted the Ducks, but did Anaheim wear them down for Tampa Bay to take advantage? If those four continue to play well, the Blackhawks will figure the rest out.