When the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning open the 2015 Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports), it won't take long before you recognize how similar these two teams are. They each feature a skilled group of deep forwards, a strong, mobile defense and two solid goalies who have had some bumps in the road, but have been there for their teams when needed.
Given how balanced Chicago and Tampa Bay are, it's a bit tricky to know what we're going to see. Will we see 60 minutes of fire wagon hockey with end-to-end rushes or will the defenses each focus on locking down the opposition's top line and keep the score low? Either style of play is possible, but I think the speed the Blackhawks and Lightning each have will win out.
We're going to see tons of scoring opportunities. Each of these teams is good defensively, but it's very tough not to give up chances when you're facing top-line talent like Steven Stamkos and Patrick Kane. That doesn't mean we're going to see seven 6-5 games, but I think the opportunities to put the puck in the net will be there. Strong goaltending or collapsing, shot-blocking defense might keep the score low, but the action at the net will be there. It will be fantastic to watch.
THERE ARE NO SECRETS
After 82 regular-season games and three rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, these teams will have been scouted to death. Tampa Bay and Chicago each have guys that spend 20 hours a day looking at tape of the other team, and at this point there will not be a single secret between the Blackhawks and the Lightning.
By the time the puck drops, everything will have been examined. Draws, plays off draws, dump-ins, cycles. The scouts are looking at anything these two teams might do that no one else does or that they haven't yet seen. That means when Game 1 starts, there won't be a single surprise. It's kind of like reaching the 10th or 12th presidential debate come election time in the U.S. You don't have a lot hidden anymore and you don't have anything new to say.
That's how pro sports are now. They're so heavily scouted that this won't be a series of X's and O's. It will be a series about heart and character, because with so much scouting and so much prior knowledge, there just won't be a way to outfox the competition.
THE NHL'S NEWEST DYNASTY
In the 1970s and 1980s, the NHL was a league of dynasties. The Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers all had tremendous championship runs of multiple Stanley Cup wins over short stretches. The Islanders, at one point, won 19 consecutive playoff series.
The era of the salary cap seems to have done away with that era, as the price of League-wide competitiveness is no one can keep a core long enough to dominate quite like champions used to. If the Blackhawks win this series, however, it will be their third title in six seasons, something we haven't seen since the Detroit Red Wings equaled the feat from 1997-2002. This may be the closest we've come to a dynasty in a long time and it might be the closest we come for a while.
That doesn't mean a run of four championships in five seasons is never going to happen again. Chicago went to Game 7 of the Western Conference Final a year ago, and one wonders how strong they could have been if a contract snafu didn't force the Blackhawks to shed players like Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd after they won the Cup in 2010. But Chicago still has a unique situation with guys like Kane and Jonathan Toews committing to one place for their primes, perhaps at below market value.
Many people believe the Blackhawks are the premier organization of their era. Another championship might put that in stone.
LOOKING FOR AN ADVANTAGE
One could argue that each of these teams has one exploitable weakness, but I don't really see it in either case. Lightning goalie Ben Bishop doesn't have as much postseason experience as most of the players on the ice, but neither did Patrick Roy or Ken Dryden when they first took aim at a Stanley Cup. So far this postseason Bishop has won two Game 7s, including one on the road, and beaten Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist, arguably the two best goalies in the League. When you win three playoff rounds against good NHL teams, I don't care if it's your first go-around. You're battle tested.
As for the Blackhawks' weakness, you'd have to point to that thin defense like we did all of the Western Conference Final. The top four play a ton of minutes, which could be a factor, but the Anaheim Ducks tried hard to wear those guys down and be physical and it just didn't take. Duncan Keith might be the best defenseman on the planet right now, and he only got better no matter how much he played or how much he was battered.
I don't expect the Lightning to use that same physical philosophy. Tampa Bay has a big defense, but they're not a grind-you-down, hit-everything-that-moves type of team. Tampa Bay will finish its checks, but the Lightning will play fast and chip the puck by you and get into footraces just like the Blackhawks do. Considering that style of play and how the Blackhawks performed against the Ducks, I just don't see how the defense could be a weakness for them.
A WINDSWEPT CUP
It's great that we'll have teams with these philosophies in the Cup Final, and it will be a very up-tempo, entertaining series. But something's got to give.
I respect the Lightning. I think they're a loaded, balanced, awesome team. But I don't think they can beat the Blackhawks. I look at these two teams and I just see all that leadership, all that experience, that talent and that character in the Chicago dressing room. The Lightning are a well-built team with lots of young players in or just entering their primes. They'll be a good team for years to come and there's no reason to think they won't be a powerhouse in the East next season.
But Chicago has been here before and is peaking at the right time. I think this will be a learning experience for Tampa Bay, and I just can't see it beating that Chicago club. I think the Lightning will push the Blackhawks and stretch it to six games, but in the end, I think the Stanley Cup will be right back in Chicago.