TAMPA -- The Chicago Blackhawks have staked claim to the title of best franchise in the salary-cap era, but four more wins in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs will put them in some exclusive company.
Chicago faces the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, which begins Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). If the Blackhawks prevail, it will be their third championship in six seasons.
Five franchises have accomplished that in NHL history. The Detroit Red Wings were the most recent, winning in 1997, 1998 and 2002. The Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders did so in the 1980s. The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs are the other teams to win the Cup three times in a six-season span.
Chicago nearly had a chance to win three times in five years, but it lost Game 7 in overtime to the Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 Western Conference Final and then had to watch the Kings dispatch the New York Rangers in a five-game Cup Final.
The Lightning should be a more formidable opponent. The Blackhawks should still be the favorite. Here are five reasons why:
1. Talent show
The most talented team does not always win in hockey, but betting it won't is a good way to lose money. The Lightning are talented and deep, and are likely to be Stanley Cup contenders for years to come.
The Blackhawks are a little more talented and a little deeper, particularly up front. Take the two rosters and re-draft them. If the idea is to draft them for the next several seasons, Lightning players would go early and often.
If the window is the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, Jonathan Toews is going before Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane is going before Tyler Johnson, Duncan Keith is going before Victor Hedman at the top of this fantasy draft, and the Blackhawks would have more players go sooner in the middle rounds as well.
The emergence of Teuvo Teravainen and the evolution of Brandon Saad have made the Blackhawks' collection of forwards even greater. Hedman and Anton Stralman are great players, pretty much on equal footing with Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson. The Blackhawks have a clear advantage with Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya.
If the goaltending is even in this series, and Chicago's Corey Crawford and Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop are very, very similar, then the Lightning will likely need some good fortune to win.
2. Connect four
Leaning so heavily on Keith, Hjalmarsson, Seabrook and Oduya was viewed as a negative for the Blackhawks early in the Western Conference Final. Surely the fast, physical Anaheim Ducks were going to wear out those four Blackhawks defensemen.
Well, Ducks center Ryan Kesler was incorrect. It turns out there are at least four humans who can handle that level of physical punishment during a seven-game series. The Blackhawks' top-heavy defense corps not only survived the Ducks, it excelled in the final two games of the series.
If their lungs and legs can handle the work, it actually becomes an advantage for the Blackhawks. They have at least one of those four defensemen on the ice at all times, and two of them for about 75 percent of the game.
Maybe the physical pounding takes effect in this series and the speedy Lightning players end up with a nice parting gift from the Ducks. That doesn't seem like a wise bet, though.
3. Net assault
Pekka Rinne had a .923 save percentage during the regular season and is a Vezina Trophy finalist. Devan Dubnyk had a .929 save percentage during the regular season and is a Vezina Trophy finalist. Frederik Andersen was average during the regular season (.914) but had a .925 save percentage through two rounds of the playoffs.
The Blackhawks vanquished all three of them, forcing them to post backup-caliber numbers in the process. Rinne was the best of the bunch at .909, and Dubnyk and Andersen each finished his series with Chicago at .901.
Bishop is at .920 during the postseason, which is an improvement from his work during the regular season (.916). It's also lower than what Dubnyk and Andersen had produced before they faced the Blackhawks, and it came against inferior offensive talent.
Bishop and the Lightning aren't going to shut down the Chicago offense, and vice versa for Crawford and the Blackhawks, which is why this is likely to be a great, high-scoring series. Will Bishop and the Lightning be able to thwart the Blackhawks offense enough to win the series? That doesn't seem likely.
NHL COACHES - ALL-TIME WINS LIST
4. 'Q' rating
Jon Cooper is a fantastic coach who has been successful at every level of the sport and didn't need long to establish himself as one of the best young coaches in the NHL. Joel Quenneville, though, might be the best coach in the League and is certainly in the top two or three.
Quenneville will likely move into second place in career victories next season, and he can become the fourth coach since the League expanded beyond six teams to win the Cup three times. That list includes Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour and Glen Sather.
Cooper's press conferences are likely to be more entertaining, and this might only be the start of an amazing run of success for him with the Lightning, but the Blackhawks are likely to have a slight edge when it comes to coaching.
5. Lords of the rings
The team at the top of the NHL mountain does not always stay there. The Edmonton Oilers knocked off the New York Islanders. The Pittsburgh Penguins solved the Red Wings. The Blackhawks had their own "time to beat big brother" series with the Red Wings and prevailed.
All of those teams needed a second chance to become champions. Plenty has been written about the future of the Blackhawks and potential salary-cap potholes, but this Chicago team is still loaded and properly motivated after the near miss a season ago.
Plenty has been written about how the Lightning have learned the way to win during these playoffs, but the Blackhawks earned that merit badge long ago. They didn't have to change the way they play, because their way has been successful for years.
Experience doesn't always matter, but the Blackhawks seem to be pretty good at making sure it does.