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Lightning, Blackhawks stress importance of defense

by Corey Masisak / Chicago Blackhawks

TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning and the Chicago Blackhawks are two of the deepest, fastest, most skilled teams in the NHL and typically try to engage in an entertaining style of play.

It could lead to a 2015 Stanley Cup Final filled with exciting plays, a frenetic pace and lots of goals.

"They've had a lot of players step up and it seems like they have a lot of offense and skill and speed to their team too," Chicago forward Patrick Kane said. "You look at it, it seems like it'd be a fun matchup and a fun series for the average fan to watch and a fun series to play in as well."

Most of the players on each side have spent time with the media the past two days talking about defense, not offense. While fans might enjoy free-wheeling, high-scoring shootouts, coaches typically do not.

It is pretty clear that message has been sent to the players. Words like structure, patience and positioning have been mentioned as much as or more than words like talent, firepower and tempo in the lead-up to Game 1 at Amalie Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

"I'm sure the coaching staffs hope it is [more tentative than high-scoring]," Lightning defenseman Matt Carle said. "I'm sure it's going to get opened up at times. Both teams are so skilled that it's inevitable for that not to happen throughout the course of a seven-game series. I'm sure there'll be some games with some fireworks, but for the most part teams are going to be trying to stay structured and play a defensive-minded game. Because both teams are so offensive, whatever team has that defensive lapse, it's going to end up in the back of your net."

These two teams are third (Chicago, 3.29) and fourth (Tampa Bay, 2.75) in the League in goals per game during the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Lightning led the NHL in goals during the regular season with 3.16 per game, while the Blackhawks actually struggled at times to score and finished 17th at 2.68.

Some of that was just bad luck for the Blackhawks. It didn't help that Kane, who was having a MVP-caliber season, missed the final seven weeks with a fractured clavicle.

These teams can definitely score in bunches. Tampa Bay leads the NHL in games with four or more goals since the start of the 2013-14 season with 64. Chicago is second with 63.

"They're really skilled, fun to watch," Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa said. "When you watched [their] series there was lots of goals, lots of beautiful goals. They definitely have players who can make unbelievable plays, and they're proving it every series."

The Lightning tried to play a more defensive style against the New York Rangers near the end of the Eastern Conference Final and it worked, as they pitched shutouts in Games 5 and 7 at Madison Square Garden to claim the series.

It is something they say they will try to do again against the Blackhawks.

"I like those games when we played against the Rangers when it was 6-5," Lightning forward Ondrej Palat said. "But we can't play like that every [game], we can't give up five goals in a game. We're going to win with the way we played in Game 7 against the Rangers. That's what we have to do."

For as much as players talked about being sound defensively, these are two teams typically able to possess the puck and avoid spending a lot time in their own zone. The Blackhawks were third in the League this season in score-adjusted shot attempts percentage (SAT%), according to www.war-on-ice.com, at 53.4 percent. The Lightning were seventh at 52.9 percent.

There are lots of similarities between the two clubs. One is an ability to play an up-tempo style. The Blackhawks are also willing to slow things down, but they do so by retaining the puck and passing it around in their half of the ice while probing for holes in the defense. A more traditional version of slowing things down is a lot of chipping and dumping the puck.

The players might say they want to focus on defense, but this series offers the potential for a lot of offense. As Kane said, it should be exciting to watch.

"There's a lot of good teams out there that don't play the fastest systems, but these are probably two of the fastest teams in the League," Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop said. "Both teams have depth that can score. You look up and down their lineup, just about everybody can put the puck in the net. You look up and down ours, about the same. So their defense, they move quick too. I don't know how fast you can get, but this will probably be as fast as it goes."

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