The biggest question mark going into the Stanley Cup finals is whether Chicago has enough left in the tank to survive one last grueling series against the one team in the NHL capable of matching or surpassing its team speed: the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Chicago’s path to the finals has been nothing short of heroic, requiring defeats of Nashville, Minnesota, and Anaheim — two bona fide Cup contenders and another just outside that discussion at the moment. While dismantling the Ducks, the Hawks overcame both a 3-2 series deficit and the fact that Anaheim had yet to lose a game in regulation in the playoffs prior to Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals.
All Tampa Bay did to reach the Stanley Cup finals was defeat three straight Original Six franchises — something no team had ever done en route to the finals — outlasting Detroit, Montreal and New York. It took the Bolts just one less than the maximum 21 games, and they have a chance to put a stamp on the run by ending Chicago’s dynasty talk.
Amazingly, Tampa should have been ousted from the playoffs twice. First they rallied to overcome the far less talented, but extremely well-coached Red Wings. Then in the Conference finals the Lightning did the nearly unthinkable, defeating the Rangers and superstar goaltender Henrik Lundqvist in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden.
Chicago and Tampa Bay, on paper, have a chance to be one of the greatest all-time matchups from a pure hockey standpoint. But how will it play out? Read my prediction below:
There are a number of reasons why Tampa Bay (50-24-8) is in the Stanley Cup finals, but the easiest thing to point to is the play of its second line (the triplets) and especially its leader Tyler Johnson (playoff leading 12 goals and 21 points). Certainly the Bolts’ overall team speed and the clutch performances by goaltender Ben Bishop (12-8-0, 2.15 G.A.A., .920 S.P.) haven’t hurt. The Lightning have simply outgunned its opponents with a dazzling level of offensive prowess, led by Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn, who is coming into his own as a budding star.
After a slow start to the playoffs, superstar Steven Stamkos is also coming on strong, as the captain registered 14 of his 17 playoff points, and all seven postseason goals, in the past two rounds. Swedish blue liners Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman have been awesome, bolstering an unheralded, yet talented group of defensemen. Bishop has had his ugly moments in the playoffs, including a 6-2 loss in Montreal in Game 4 and three dreadful performances against the Rangers in Games 3, 4 and 6, but came up huge with shutouts in both deciding Game 7s en route to the finals.
If there is a concern for Tampa Bay going into the finals, it’s their lackluster play at home. The Lightning, who will have home ice in the series, are just 5-5 at Amalie Arena during the the postseason.
For Chicago (48-28-6), the 2015 playoffs have marked the farewell tour for this version of the band. The salary cap strapped club will look much different in 2015-16. For now, its core of Patrick Kane (West-leading 10 goals and 20 points), captain Jonathan Toews, all-world defenseman Duncan Keith (postseason leading plus-13 rating), clutch Brent Seabrook, two-way stalwart Marian Hossa, and dependable goaltender Corey Crawford provide arguably the best roster in the NHL. The Blackhawks seemed to realize this after a crushing overtime loss in Game 5 against Ducks that put the team on the brink of elimination.
Toews especially has come on strong as of late, putting the team on his back for the near-comeback win in Game 5 and then scoring a pair of goals in the deciding contest back in Anaheim. Keith, who regularly plays more than 30 minutes a game, keeps getting better and better. He shut down Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in the last two games of the Western Conference final, while providing plenty of transition offense the other direction. So far he’s the outright leader in the playoffs’ Conn Smythe discussion. For the Hawks to clinch their third title in six years (Cup wins in 2010 and 2013), he and the rest of the battered Chicago defense must continue to hold up, while Crawford provides enough saves against the league’s best offensive team.
All signs point to the Blackhawks, the more experienced and pedigreed team, to beat the upstarts from Tampa in what is expected to be a classic series. However, few teams can match up with Tampa’s speed over the course of a seven-game series, especially another speedy club like Chicago. Yet, if the Blackhawks can hold up physically, they are the better team and therefore will win the Stanley Cup in a seven-game marathon. Chicago in seven.