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Cup Final rematch possible for Blackhawks, Lightning

by Dan Rosen

The budding rivalry between the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning, born out of a Stanley Cup Final matchup last season, has a chance to be the new version of the old rivalry between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings.

The Penguins and Red Wings played each other in the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 and again in 2009. The veteran Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in a six-game series against the inexperienced Penguins in 2008, but the following season saw the playoff-savvy Penguins defeat the still-veteran but obviously vulnerable Red Wings in a seven-game series.

Fast forward to 2015 and the same sequence of events has a chance to repeat with the Blackhawks and Lightning, who play each other for the first time since the Cup Final on Saturday at United Center (8:30 p.m. ET; NHLN-US, SN1, SUN, WGN).

The comparisons make this too rich of a prospect to ignore, even if it requires conceding that the same two teams will meet in the Cup Final again (2008-09 was the first time it happened since 1983-84) and that the Blackhawks could lose in a Cup Final (they haven't in three trips since 2010).

The Penguins in 2007-08 were young and coming off their first playoff berth with Sidney Crosby as captain. The first one didn't go well; they were knocked out of the first round in five games by the Ottawa Senators in 2007. Pittsburgh learned from that experience, grew up in the following months, and was more prepared to make a deep run in 2008.

The Penguins played 20 games in the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They showed the Senators how much better they were in a four-game sweep in the first round before advancing to the Cup Final with five-game series wins against the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers.

The Lightning have a similar tale to tell.

Like Pittsburgh in 2008, Tampa Bay last season was sort of the hot new thing in the Eastern Conference coming off a playoff berth in 2014, its first with Steven Stamkos as captain.

But like the Penguins in 2007, the Lighting's run in the 2014 playoffs was short and ugly. They were swept out of the first round by the Montreal Canadiens.

So what did the Lightning do? They grew up, matured and learned from their experience, and then went back to the playoffs the following season and proved to the NHL that they are a championship-caliber team.

Sound familiar?

The Lightning got past the Detroit Red Wings in seven games before getting their revenge on the Canadiens with a six-game series win. They defeated the Rangers in seven games, winning Game 7 at Madison Square Garden, where no visiting team had ever won a Game 7.

Tampa Bay, like Pittsburgh in 2008, ran up against a veteran team with a championship pedigree in the Cup Final. The Blackhawks defeated the Lightning in a six-game series for their third Stanley Cup championship in six seasons.

Like the Penguins in 2008-09, the Lightning have grand expectations this season. They even have a roster that compares favorably to the Penguins seven seasons ago.

Stamkos is comparable to Crosby. Victor Hedman is to Tampa Bay what Kris Letang was and still is to Pittsburgh. Anton Stralman and Sergei Gonchar have different styles, but their value and impact are equal.

Lightning goalie Ben Bishop didn't have any playoff experience before last season; Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had played five postseason games before he went into the 2008 playoffs. Each faces constant questions and criticism.

The Lightning don't have anyone of Evgeni Malkin's ilk, but they do have Tyler Johnson, a high-scoring if diminutive No. 2 center. They also have Jonathan Drouin. No one from the Penguins' 2009 championship team is truly comparable to him.

Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Valtteri Filppula, Ryan Callahan, Alex Killorn and Brian Boyle are Tampa Bay's version of Petr Sykora, Ruslan Fedotenko, Jordan Staal, Max Talbot, Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin from the '09 Penguins.

Tampa Bay has Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn; Pittsburgh had Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi. Ryan Whitney, meet Matt Carle.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper comes from the American Hockey League, just like former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma.

But hold on, because there are similar comparisons between the Red Wings and Blackhawks too, and it doesn't mean that Chicago would lose in the Cup Final if it returns to play Tampa Bay.

The Red Wings roster going into the 2008 Cup Final featured 10 players with a total of 24 Stanley Cup championships, including three each for Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Kirk Maltby, Kris Draper, Chris Chelios and Darren McCarty.

Brian Rafalski had won the Cup twice with the New Jersey Devils. Chris Osgood had won it twice with the Red Wings. Dominik Hasek and Pavel Datsyuk played for Detroit's 2002 Cup championship team.

The Blackhawks' active roster going into the Cup Final last season featured 15 players with a total of 23 championships, including two each for Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Bryan Bickell.

Chicago has a majority of the players from last season, minus Sharp, Johnny Oduya, Kris Versteeg and Brandon Saad. The Red Wings had the majority of their '08 championship roster intact in '09, minus important pieces like Dallas Drake and Hasek.

The difference that got the Penguins over the hump in 2009 was they were more knowledgeable, humble and, frankly, better than they were in 2008 with the additions of Kunitz and Guerin. They took advantage of it and defeated the team that had a dynasty behind it.

The Lightning have extra knowledge and a humble swagger gained from their run last season. They also have a general manager, Steve Yzerman, who was part of Red Wings management in '08 and '09. He saw up close how the Penguins evolved to defeat his former team.

Yzerman's current team might be set up to do the same thing, or at least get a crack at it, which is why the game Saturday in Chicago between the Blackhawks and Lightning could be a prelude to something bigger, way bigger, in June.


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