WARR’s hockey writer Sidney Brown offers his takes on the Blackhawks throughout their postseason run
To the casual fan, this year’s Stanley Cup Final may not have the obvious flare of a year ago when the New York Rangers met up with the Los Angeles Kings, but this year’s series offers a showcase of offensive skill and speed that the NHL couldn’t provide with any other match-up.
The Chicago Blackhawks are making their third trip to the finals in the last six years, a chance to develop a true modern dynasty is in their metaphorical lap, while the Lightning are making their second final appearance overall after winning the Cup in 2004.
Both teams had difficult roads to travel to get to hockey’s holy grail this time around. Let’s take a look on how the Hawks and Lightning reached the NHL’s final destination.
How They Got Here
The Chicago Blackhawks finished the regular season with a 48-28-6 mark for 3rd place in the Central Division, gaining almost as many key injuries — Corey Crawford, Kris Versteeg, Trevor Van Rymsdyk and Patrick Kane — along the way as it did wins.
Once the lights came on for the playoffs, all signs began to point towards another long run toward Lord Stanley’s Cup, with lasting motivation supplied by last year’s disappointing Game 7 finish to the eventual Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Finals.
The opening round series against division foe Nashville posed a threat early on, fueled by goalie Corey Crawford’s early struggles that took center stage. With that development came backup Scott Darling, who saved the Hawks in Game 1 before eventually fizzling out in the early minutes of Game 6.
The Hawks defeated the Predators in six games and knocked out another divisional rival in the Minnesota Wild in a four game sweep. In the Wild series, the Hawks were dominant from start to finish and Crawford stepped up to the plate to show why he’s a championship-caliber goalie.
In the conclusion of the Wild series, defenseman Michal Rozsival suffered an ankle injury which shut him down for the rest of the playoffs. Rozsival’s sidelining took a shot to the Hawks’ defensive depth and the timing wasn’t great. In the Western Conference Finals versus the Anaheim Ducks, it was speed and skill against strength and the Hawks were tested from the get go.
In defeating Anaheim in seven games, which included a Game 7 road win, Chicago proved that its structure wins out when they’re patient while wearing the opponent down physically. If the Hawks should win the Cup again for the third time in six seasons, it will be considered a dynasty, especially in the restrictive salary cap era that forces the restructuring of teams every couple of years.
The Tampa Lightning had something to prove for the 2014-15 campaign coming off of last year’s disappointing first round elimination to the Montreal Canadiens. With healthy stars in Steven Stamkos and goalie Ben Bishop, the Lightning finished 2nd in the Atlantic Division with a record of 50-24-8 behind only Montreal.
The playoffs would see the Lightning experience struggles with a young Detroit Red Wings team that pushed Tampa Bay to a seventh game in which Bishop stepped up in goal and delivered his first of two playoff shutouts as the Lightning survived a huge scare.
In the second round versus Montreal, revenge was on the minds of the Lightning and they took the challenge head on as they defeated the Canadiens in six games along with conquering the best goalie in the NHL this season, Carey Price. The Montreal series proved to be the starting point for snipers Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson to showcase themselves. In the Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Rangers, it was Tampa’s speed squaring off against a strong and physical defense from NYC.
While the Rangers deployed one of the best goaltenders in the league in Henrik Lundquvist, it was Tampa’s offense that responded whenever it was pressed and the defense made its mark in shutting out the Rangers in Madison Square Garden in Games 5 and 7 to pull off the upset. During this run, the Lightning made history in defeating three Original Six opponents to reach the finals. Will they make further history in defeating a fourth in Chicago?
As this series begins, the Hawks should feel some relief from the last series against Anaheim as the physicality and punishment factor should be minimal against the Lightning who will feel free in using their speed to their advantage, but a big question for them is can they operate against all four of Chicago’s productive lines? Who will step up, who has the edge and who will ultimately come out on top with Lord Stanley’s Cup? Let’s take a look at the match-ups.
The Hawks are led by superstars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who were reunited on the team’s top line in Game 7 against Anaheim and made their presence felt with a combined 5 points to eliminate the Ducks. First liner Brandon Saad made his presence known in the Ducks series, scoring three goals across the seven games, including a goal in the second period which contributed to Chicago’s victory in the decisive contest.
Chicago’s third line in Patrick Sharp, Teuvo Teravainen and Antoine Vermette were the best and most consistent line in the Western Conference Finals and the combination of speed and goal scoring they provide makes this line dangerous for any opponent. Marcus Kruger, Andrew Desjardins and Andrew Shaw are expected to also help contain the Lightning’s top two scoring lines.
Bryan Bickell and former Lightning star Brad Richards (2004 Conn Smythe Trophy Winner) are expected to induce traffic in front of the net to create numerous scoring chances.
Tamp Bay’s first line consists of Valtteri Filppula, Alex Killon and Steven Stamkos. Stamkos is one of the most prolific scorers in the NHL because of his speed and vision and with all that he lit up the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals, scoring a goal in four straight games. Stamkos has 17 total points this postseason while line mate Killorn has 16.
The line that produced the most has been the Lightning’s second line led by breakout star Tyler Johnson who’s the league leader in playoff scoring with 21 points (12 goals).
Line mate Nikita Kucherov has contributed well with 9 goals and 10 assists, putting him third in overall playoff scoring. Bryan Boyle, Ryan Callahan, Brendan Morrow, J.T. Brown and Cedric Paquette will also be asked to contribute in containing the high-powered Hawks offense.
Chicago’s four horsemen — Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjlamarsson, Johnny Oduya and iron man Duncan Keith — logged in heavy minutes in the Anaheim series due to the injury of Michal Rozsival. Offensively, Duncan Keith has tallied 18 total points while Seabrook has six goals and four assists.
Kimmo Timonen was brought in at the trade deadline to provide depth along the blue line and so far the experiment has failed. Timonen was replaced by Kyle Cumiskey and rookie David Rundblad and that duo has only limited mistakes when paired with other veterans, helping limit the mistakes that was costing Chica early in the Western Conference Finals.
The Lightning’s top defensive pair is Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman. Hedman leads all Lightning defensemen with 10 points while Stralman has 7 points. Tampa Bay’s second paring of Jason Garrison and Braydon Cobrun brings a combination of offense and physicality while their third paring in Matthew Carle and Andrej Sustr brings the pain but their puck handling ability is very questionable, the Hawks can and will take advantage of turnovers during their ice time.
After his struggles in the Nashville series, Corey Crawford has responded like a champion throughout the remainder of the playoffs, posting a 9-5 record with a 2.56 goals against average along with a .919 save percentage with one shutout.
On the other side, after missing last year’s playoffs due to injury, Ben Bishop has taken full advantage of his opportunities and has made the most of them. Bishop posts a record 12-8 with a save percentage of .920 along with a 2.15 goals against average and 3 shutouts.
Bishop, already the biggest goalie in NHL history, made more history in becoming the first goalie in NHL history to post two shutouts in his first two Game 7 clinching series victories (Detroit, first round and NY Rangers, Eastern Finals) and also became the first goalie to earn shutouts in Games 5 and 7 on the road in a playoff series.
Numbers often tell the story and for this series, given the offensive reputations of the respective squads, these starting goalies may want to get their gloves ready for what should be a fast-paced series.
Corey Crawford (CHI):
HOME — 5-1 record, .936 Save %, 1.94 Goals Against
ROAD — 4-3 record, .907 SV%, 3.03 GAA, 1 Shutout
Ben Bishop (TB):
HOME — 5-5 record, .888 SV%, 2.93 GAA, 1 SO
ROAD — 7-3 record, .947 SV%, 1.45 GAA, 2 SO
Power Play Percentage: CHI (19.6) TB (22.2)
Penalty Kill: CHI (75.5) TB (81.2)
Power Play Goal Leaders
TB — Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov 4 (Tied)
CHI — Jonathan Toews 3, Patrick Kane 2
Hawks Playoff Leaders
Points: Patrick Kane (20)
Goals: Patrick Kane (10)
Assists: Duncan Keith (16)
Penalty Minutes: Andrew Shaw (34)
Goals Against Average: Scott Darling (2.22)
Lightning Playoff Leaders
Points: Tyler Johnson (21)
Goals: Tyler Johnson (12)
Assists: Nikita Kucherov (10)
Penalty Minutes: Tyler Johnson (24)
Goals Against Average: Ben Bishop (2.15)
As both teams display great offensive ability, this series will come to two things — can the Hawks establish their high-powered and fast-paced attack early in the games this series and who will make the big saves when it matters most?
This is also a youth versus experience battle, which should favor the Hawks but the Lightning have the feel of a team that won’t stop attacking just because they’ve fallen behind some. Buckle up for an offensive showdown that could be one for the ages!
My Prediction: Hawks In 5.
Game 1: Blackhawks at Lightning, Tonight (7 p.m., NBC)
Game 3: Lightning at Blackhawks, Monday, June 8 (7 p.m., NBCSN)
Game 4: Lightning at Blackhawks, Wednesday, June 10 (7 p.m., NBCSN)
*-Game 5: Blackhawks at Lightning, Saturday, June 13 (7 p.m., NBC)
*-Game 6: Lightning at Blackhawks, Monday, June 15 (7 p.m., NBC)
*-Game 7: Blackhawks at Lightning, Wednesday, June 17 (7 p.m., NBC)
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