TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks haven't played each other since Feb. 27, the second game Chicago played after Patrick Kane sustained a fractured clavicle that put him out for the rest of the regular season. The Lightning won 4-0. It means nothing now.
So much is different for the Lightning and Blackhawks heading into Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday at Amalie Arena (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). For starters, Kane is back in Chicago's lineup and has 20 points in 17 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Tampa Bay has played 20 out of a possible 21 games to reach the Cup Final for the first time since 2004, when current Blackhawks center Brad Richards won the Conn Smythe Trophy as a member of the Lightning.
Chicago played 17 games to get to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in six seasons.
Undoubtedly we'll know a lot more about what type of Cup Final we're in once a game is finally played. Heading into it, because there is not a lot of familiarity between the teams, it's still a mystery of what to truly expect, even though many pundits have their own ideas.
So instead of having keys for each team heading into Game 1, we have questions, as in three for the Blackhawks and three for the Lightning. Here they are:
How long will Toews and Kane stay together?
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville put Jonathan Toews and Kane on the same line for Game 6 against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Final. It's routinely viewed as Quenneville's nuclear option to put his best two forwards on the same line because he typically likes to have more balance, but facing a 3-2 deficit it was time to do it.
The Blackhawks won the next two games, Toews and Kane combined for three goals and six points, and Chicago got to the Cup Final. Quenneville won't change it up now, but nobody is quite sure how long he'll stay with Kane and Toews on the same line either. Even he doesn't know.
"Tough to forecast long-term on that," Quenneville said. "Last two games, they were so good together, it's tough to get them apart now. We'll see how the game goes matchup-wise. Certainly have some balance if you get them apart. Together, pretty dynamic the last two games. We'll visit that, how the games are going, how the matchup is."
How much ice time will Cumiskey and Rundblad get?
Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith is playing more than 31 minutes per game. Fellow defensemen Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya are all playing more than 25 minutes per game.
The Blackhawks survived by riding four defensemen in the Western Conference Final despite having to face the physicality that the Ducks play with.
They won't have to worry about being hit in the Cup Final because the Lightning are not an overly physical team, but the questions are how will Tampa Bay's speed affect Chicago's top four and will it require Quenneville to play his other two defensemen more in Game 1 than he did in Game 7 against Anaheim, when Kyle Cumiskey played 8:31 and David Rundblad played 5:35.
"High speed usually is the thing that is toughest to play against," Oduya said. "That goes for us too. That's something we want to do. We want to put the pace high and take it to the opponent. It's a little bit different style, a little more offensive than we have seen so far in the playoffs. Maybe Nashville had a similar style where they had a lot of speed and still were very good defensively and had a good goalie. For us it's just being smart and not giving up too many turnovers to have pucks come back at you a lot. I think that's key."
What is the plan to defend the "Triplets" line?
Tampa Bay's high-powered offensive line featuring Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat has accounted for 28 goals and 27 assists through 20 games. No team has really been able to stop them. The New York Rangers were able to slow them down in the middle of the Eastern Conference Final, but the "Triplets" broke through late in Game 6 and Palat scored in Game 7.
"They've been great, as good as any line has been all year," Quenneville said. "Pretty quick. Dangerous off the rush. A lot of trickery, movement, anticipation between the three. That's a primary concern going in."
Quenneville might opt to use his fourth line of Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw and Andrew Desjardins against them as often as he can despite not having the last-change advantage being on the road. That line with Kruger in the middle, Shaw on the right and Desjardins on the left is built to handle fast, elusive, skilled lines like the "Triplets."
"They play with a lot of speed and you want to take that speed down and you do that by being close to them to take away time and space," Kruger said. "Also, if we have the puck it's harder for them to score so that's something we have talked about. But that's a great line. They've been one of the best here in the playoffs. It's going to be tough to crack that."
Will secondary scoring finally be important to the Lightning?
The Lightning's top six forward group has accounted for 45 of their 55 goals through 20 games, including a team-high 12 from Johnson, nine from Kucherov, and seven each from Palat, Steven Stamkos and Alex Killorn. Valtteri Filppula has three goals.
Secondary scoring hasn't mattered yet because the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and Rangers could not figure out how to completely stop the Lightning's top-six forward group, particularly the "Triplets" line.
"We've been fortunate to get this far without [secondary scoring] because every other year there is always some unsung hero or somebody that steps up," said Lightning forward Brenden Morrow, who has no points in 18 games. "I think we feel real fortunate to be where we are with laying it on the shoulders of six guys basically. We need to find somebody else. We need scoring contributions from a lot of other people now."
Will playing seven defensemen work again?
The Lightning are 8-3 in the playoffs when they use a lineup that features 11 forwards and seven defensemen. It's unlikely that changes for Game 1 against Chicago because of the success they have had with that alignment. They are 4-5 with a traditional 12-6 alignment.
It works for the Lightning on multiple levels.
It gets Nikita Nesterov in the game. Nesterov, who acts as the seventh defenseman and is averaging 11:37 of ice time per game, is an offensive player who contributes on the power play. He has six points in 14 games. He has been more valuable than any 12th forward would be.
It also works because it gives the Lightning's forwards more ice time, and it enables them to mix and match lines to get away from matchups that the coaching staff may not like.
"I think that's something that doesn't really get talked about too much," defenseman Matthew Carle said. "It's tough to get line matchups for the other team's 'D' when our lines are always mixing and matching. It's been something that's been good for us."
Carle also said playing seven defensemen works because nobody has to play extended minutes. Victor Hedman is averaging 23:24 per game and Anton Stralman is averaging 22:13, but nobody else is over 20 minutes. Carle, Braydon Coburn and Andrej Sustr are all playing between 16-17.
How much will having the last change matter?
Lightning coach Jon Cooper is admittedly not big on matchups, even when Tampa Bay has the last-change advantage being the home team. It doesn't appear that he's going to change his philosophy against the Blackhawks, save for one caveat.
If the Blackhawks keep Toews and Kane together, expect them to get a healthy dose of Stralman and Hedman. Otherwise, Cooper is ready to just roll with it.
"Every team has good players; you have to challenge yourself to be better," Cooper said. "We're sitting here in the Stanley Cup Final. Sometimes we've got to be best on best. You're not going to pull a rabbit out of your hat and say we have some magic scheme. Just be better than the next guy. That's what you have to do. You have to challenge yourself.
"Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are two of the best players this league has seen in a long time. But we feel Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, we go down our list and think, maybe we're not too bad ourselves. Let's prove to everybody you can play against these guys."