TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING VS. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
We hear so much talk these days about speed and pace in the NHL, and how the teams that have it in their arsenal are, most often, the best equipped to hang around in the race. If we take that at face value, it should be no surprise that the two teams left standing are two teams that play fast and collaborative hockey. From the Eastern Conference, the Tampa Bay Lightning have gotten better with each round and they’ve gained something from each eliminated opponent along the way – mostly in the form of confidence, which is huge for a young team realizing it’s capable of getting the job done. The Lightning outlasted the Detroit Red Wings in the first round and played a very confident elimination game, then exorcised some demons (after a first-round sweep a year ago) against the Montreal Canadiens in the second round and earned some additional rest in the process. Then, it was on to the conference final against the Presidents Trophy winning New York Rangers, a team that was determined to – excuse me for borrowing their motto here – change the ending after losing in the Stanley Cup Final last summer. The Lightning played their best hockey at Madison Square Garden but had some inconsistencies on home ice, where the Stanley Cup Final will begin tonight at Amalie Arena.
Can they get four more wins and capture the franchise’s second Stanley Cup championship since 2004? If they’re to do that, they will need more sparkling netminding from Ben Bishop, who has also strengthened with each round. They’ll also need Tyler Johnson to keep driving the bus offensively, as well as Steven Stamkos (who struggled scoring early in the playoffs but has since heated up) and Valtteri Flippula to be the catalysts in the attacking end.
Their opponent is battle tested, has won two Stanley Cup championships since 2010 and boasts two of the game’s elite players in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The Blackhawks know how to get it done and their uptempo ‘team’ game makes them one of the NHL’s consistently elite teams – but they will have their hands full with this Lightning group. For starters, the Blackhawks have essentially used only four defensemen throughout the playoffs, giving only sparse minutes to third-pairing blue liners Kyle Cumiskey and Kimmo Timonen. The top four of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson has logged a lot of minutes in the first three rounds for Chicago, and that group will no doubt be leaned on heavily with only four wins separting the Blackhawks from another Stanley Cup championship. Chicago has received solid contributions from its secondary cast, as well, with names like Patrick Sharp, Antoine Vermette, Brad Richards (playing in yet another Stanley Cup Final), Marian Hossa and others stepping up to support the duo at the top of the order.
If the Blackhawks are going to win this series, I think it’ll be because of their depth up front and coach Joel Quenneville’s ability to roll four lines with offensive ability (that’s not to say Tampa doesn’t have that ability, as well, because it does) – and they have to be mindful of the minutes logged by their top four defensemen, because the Lightning’s defense is deeper and has played far fewer minutes throughout the playoffs.
So I guess I have to make a pick, then?
PREDICTION: Tampa Bay wins in six games.