The teams are set.
On one side, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference who have beaten a trio of Original Six teams on their way to a showdown with a fourth in the Stanley Cup Finals. On the other side, the Chicago Blackhawks, the No. 4 seed from the Western Conference and a team that is looking for its third Stanley Cup in six years, the closest you can get to a dynasty in the current NHL climate.
Both went seven games in their respective Conference Finals – Tampa beating the New York Rangers, Chicago doing away with the Anaheim Ducks – while the Bolts have played 20 post-season games to the Blackhawks’ 17, so neither side should have any real edge in terms of rest and what they have left in the tank.
It’s the Stanley Cup Finals – everyone is a little dinged up, but it’s a chance to hoist hockey’s holy grail, so both sides will be giving it their all from the opening drop of the puck until the final horn sounds.
But how do they match up? We’re glad you asked.
In terms of the forwards, this match-up is pretty much a wash.
Chicago has the more established stars as guys like “Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp have spearheaded two previous Stanley Cup offenses and secondary threats like Brad Richards, Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw have all been here before as well.
That being said, Tampa Bay not only has prolific goal scorer Steven Stamkos, but second-year center Tyler Johnson currently leads the playoffs in scoring with right winger Nikita Kucherov two points behind him. Add in the likes of Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat and the Lightning have as balanced a group up front as the Blackhawks.
On the Blue Line
The edge on the back end has to go to Chicago simply because they’re the ones with Duncan Keith. The two-time Norris Trophy winner as the league’s top defensemen, Keith is outstanding on the power play, sound in his own end and the kind of special talent that can make a serious difference in a series like this. Chicago arguably the second-best defensemen in this series as well in Brent Seabrook, the steady 10-year vet who has already contributed six goals in 17 games after netting just eight during the regular season. Rounding out their blue line corps are veterans Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya and Kimmo Timonen, with a rotating cast replacing injured Michal Rozsival as the sixth defensemen.
None of this is to say that Tampa Bay has a shaky defensive group – they don’t, they’re just not as experienced or impactful as their counterparts on the other side of the ice.
Former second-overall pick Victor Hedman has developed into a steady stalwart on the blue line for the Bolts and veterans Braydon Coburn, Anton Stralman and Matthew Carle are all solid. Youngster Nikita Nesterov has been a nice surprise, contributing six points in 14 games after earning seven in 27 regular season games, while Jason Garrison and Andrej Sustr can alternate through the final spot on the blue line.
Between the Pipes
This positional battle comes down to a “depends what you like more” decision: the goalie that has already backstopped his team to a Stanley Cup win in the past or the one with the superior numbers so far in these playoffs?
Corey Crawford was the man in the net for Chicago when the team won it all in 2013. That year, he posted a 16-7 record, a .932 save percentage and a 1.86 GAA. Since replacing Scott Darling midway through the Blackhawks’ opening round series against Nashville, Crawford has gone 9-4 with a .919 save percentage and 2.56 GAA; not bad, but not great either.
Meanwhile, Ben Bishop has started every game in net for Tampa Bay, posting a 12-8 record with a .920 save percentage and 2.15 GAA. He’s allowed the most goals of anyone in the playoffs thus far, but 15 of the 42 pucks that got behind him came in three games against the Rangers. He’s also first amongst playoff goalies in shutouts, with three.
Crawford’s experience is huge and Bishop will need to prove he’s up to the task early. That being said, he’s the more consistent of the two overall, as Crawford is prone to giving up big rebounds and letting in shaky goals far more often than his counterpart.
Just like the forwards, this one is really a coin-flip and could change from game-to-game.
On the Bench
Chicago’s Joel Quenneville dominates the coaching match-up against Tampa Bay’s John Cooper, though the superstitious folks might want to side with the Lightning’s bench boss as Cooper has won a championship in his second year at every level; this is his sophomore season with Tampa Bay.
Fun facts aside, “Coach Q” has a .622 win percentage in the playoffs with Chicago, including two Cups and more than 100 playoff games under his belt. Meanwhile, Cooper went 0-4 last year and is 12-8 through the first 20 games this season.
So Who Will Win?
Chicago has to be the favourite – they’ve been here before and know what it takes to win it all, plus they have the edge on the blue line and behind the bench. That said, if Bishop steps up and the Bolts offense gets hot, Tampa Bay could put crooked numbers on the scoreboard every night and pull off the upset.
If I were a gambling man, I would take Chicago in six, but it should be a fun series.