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Five reasons Lightning can win Stanley Cup

by Dan Rosen

The Tampa Bay Lightning have already made history in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs by becoming the first team to defeat three Original Six teams to reach the Stanley Cup Final. Four more wins and they'll break that record.

The Lightning defeated the Detroit Red Wings in seven games, the Montreal Canadiens in six, and the New York Rangers in seven to earn their chance to compete against the Chicago Blackhawks for the Stanley Cup. They even have home-ice advantage.

Game 1 is Wednesday at Amalie Arena (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

In defeating the Canadiens, the Lightning knocked off a team that lost the Eastern Conference Final last season. In defeating the Rangers, they dethroned last year's Eastern Conference champs (New York defeated Montreal in six games in the 2014 conference final).

If the Lightning are to win the Stanley Cup, they'll have to defeat a team that closest represents a modern-day dynasty. The Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup twice and have made four trips, including three in a row, to the Western Conference Final since 2010.

It'll be challenging, no doubt, but the Lightning certainly have the wherewithal to defeat the Blackhawks four times in two weeks. Here are five reasons:

1. Brash belief

The Lightning have gained as much swagger as they have experience through three rounds in the playoffs. The Blackhawks won't scare them.

Tampa Bay erased a 3-2 series deficit to defeat Detroit in seven games, killed demons by knocking off the Canadiens in six, and ignored the historic numbers in the Eastern Conference Final to become the first team to defeat the Rangers in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden.

The fact that the Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup twice since 2010 is equivalent, or at least it is to the Lightning, to the Rangers' and goalie Henrik Lundqvist's domination in Game 7.

The Lightning didn't care that Lundqvist had won six straight Game 7s and the Rangers were 7-0 in them all time at the Garden. They said that's nice and all, but Lundqvist and the Rangers had never defeated them in Game 7. It's still true.

The Lightning will respect, but not fear or, frankly, care about the Blackhawks' championship success.

"Confidence is a crazy thing," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "It's so tough to get, but when you have it you try to keep it as long as you can. This group has confidence, and you need that going forward."

2. Stamkos has found his groove

After a tough start to the playoffs, Stamkos has been his normal self for the past 12 games. He has seven goals and 14 points since Game 2 against the Canadiens; he had no goals and three assists through the first eight games of the playoffs.

Stamkos' shift to right wing in Game 6 against Montreal has worked out. As coach Jon Cooper was hoping would happen, Stamkos found more room to operate on the right wing, and he's getting chances with the help of Valtteri Filppula's puck skills and Alex Killorn's power game.

The Lightning defeated the Red Wings despite basically being a one line team. With Stamkos scoring, it makes the "Triplets" line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov a greater threat than they already were.

"There wasn't tail between the legs, there wasn't head down," Cooper said prior to Game 5 against the Rangers when he was asked about Stamkos' scoring slump early in the playoffs. "Frustration, yes, but you want that in a player that he wants to succeed. He struggled and fought his way through it to where he is now. We may have got through the Detroit series without him having to go produce much offensively, but for us to keep advancing, we need [Stamkos] to produce, and he just keeps finding a way."

3. 'Triplets' are a difficult match

It's rare to find chemistry on one line like the Lightning have with their "Triplets" line of Johnson, Palat and Kucherov.

They have taken on all challengers in the playoffs so far, including the Rangers' top defense pair of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, and have basically torn them all to shreds with their skill, speed and physicality.

They have combined for 28 goals (the Lightning have 55) and 55 points. Johnson is first in playoff goals (12) and points (21). Kucherov is fourth in points with 19, including nine goals. Palat has 15 points, including seven goals.

The line has everything you'd want in an elite scoring line. Kucherov can shoot the lights out, Palat is a grinder and banger who can score, and Johnson is a skilled center who plays a 200-foot game and scores from the hard areas of the ice despite being the smallest guy on the ice.

The Blackhawks will have to figure out how they want to try to defend them, but it won't be easy. The Rangers had limited success; Johnson, Palat and Kucherov combined for 11 goals and 13 assists in the series. That was actually a good job by the Rangers D.

4. Bishop is a tough out

Ben Bishop
Ben Bishop
Goalie - TBL
RECORD: 12-8
GAA: 2.15 | SVP: .920
Goalie Ben Bishop gave up five goals or more in three games against the Rangers, and somehow the Lightning were still able to win the series with Bishop making a difference in a positive way. That says as much about how Chicago should feel going up against Bishop as it does how Tampa Bay should feel to have Bishop on its side.

The latter matters more to the Lightning players than the former.

Bishop is 12-8 with a .920 save percentage, 2.15 goals-against average and three shutouts in the playoffs. What's most impressive is how he has responded after a loss; he is 7-1 with a 1.25 GAA, .951 save percentage and two shutouts in games after losses in the playoffs.

Bishop had a 26-save shutout in Game 5 against the Rangers and a 22-save shutout in Game 7. He has allowed 10 goals in eight games after a loss. He also had a 31-save shutout in Game 7 against the Red Wings, but that was after a win in Game 6.

"I don't think there's ever been a game we walked into and not had confidence in [Bishop]," Johnson said. "He's a big-time player. He's a guy that competes. He works hard. He wants to win. We have a lot of faith in him in a lot of situations, and he's never let us down."

5. Hedman and Stralman

The Blackhawks might have the ability to play Duncan Keith with Brent Seabrook, but that doesn't scare the Lightning because they can counter with a top pairing featuring Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman.

The Lightning feel any advantage the Blackhawks have had over other teams in the playoffs because of Keith and Seabrook is washed away because of Hedman and Stralman. They might not be wrong.

Hedman is an electrifying and towering 24-year-old who can lead the rush, pinch deep into the offensive zone, and still be the first one back defending. He's remarkably mobile for being 6-foot-6, 230 pounds.

"You watch how explosive he is, he's one guy on the ice that could ice the puck and beat it out himself," Cooper said during the conference final. "He can lead the rush and be the first guy back. It's just his explosiveness. It's like shooting him out of a cannon. We're in an even-man rush, and all of a sudden it's an odd-man rush because here comes Victor.

"I've said this many times, when Victor is going, usually our team is going."

Stralman, Hedman's quiet partner, is one of the steadiest defensemen in the NHL. He's incredibly poised and always in the right position. He's essentially a poor man's Nicklas Lidstrom, and we stress "poor man's" is because Lidstrom has earned too much respect, particularly from Stralman, to be compared to anybody.

"It's amazing the way he's calm with the puck and rarely makes mistakes throughout the game, and he's effective in both ends of the ice," Hedman said. "He's really quick, sees the ice very well. He's just an overall great player."

The Lightning typically have the puck, or are limiting teams to one-and-done chances, when Stralman and Hedman are on the ice. They are the great equalizer to the Blackhawks' speed and skill.


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