By: Chris Dagonas
The Stanley Cup finals series begins Wednesday night in Tampa Bay, with 2013’s champion Chicago Blackhawks taking on the Lightning.
In an interesting twist, Tampa Bay has only played against Original Six teams in this year’s playoffs (Detroit, Montreal, New York Rangers, Chicago). They have also played 20 games, just one short of the maximum. Chicago reached the finals by getting past the Nashville Predators, Minnesota Wild, and Anaheim Ducks. They managed to get past the three series in just 17 games, perhaps leaving them slightly fresher than their opponents.
We’ll break down the series, position by position, to see who comes out on top.
Ben Bishop mans the pipes for the Lightning. Bishop is the league’s tallest goaltender, standing 6-feet, 7-inches tall. He has played with St. Louis and Ottawa in the past, but never played a starting role until he landed in Tampa in 2012-13. In two full seasons as Tampa Bay’s starter, Bishop has posted a 2.28 Goals Against Average and a .920 save percentage. He has been red hot in these, his first playoffs, and has posted shutouts in two game sevens, the only goalie to achieve that feat in their first playoff year.
The Blackhawks counter with Corey Crawford, who has been Chicago’s starter since the 2010-11 season. He has already steered the Hawks to one Stanley Cup championship in 2012-13. Over the past two seasons, he sports a 2.27 Goals Against Average and a .921 save percentage. In short, he and Bishop have remarkably similar stat lines. The edge here goes to experience, where Crawford has seen and done it all before, whereas Bishop is still growing into the spotlight. Advantage: Chicago
The Blackhawks boast perhaps the deepest set of defenders in the entire NHL. From one through six, they can skate well, move the puck, and force opposing forwards into turnovers and bad shots. The core has also been together for a few years, which leads to the little subtleties that can make all the difference.
The Lightning defensive corps is younger and feistier, but lack the proven leadership of a Duncan Keith or Brent Seabrook. Star defenseman Victor Hedman is only 24, and while this will be an excellent growth opportunity for the budding star, he is not yet at the level needed to stop the Blackhawks’ potent attacks. Advantage: Chicago
Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp account for 27 of Chicago’s 56 goals this offseason, which amounts to almost 50 percent. Having a big four is a great way to win in basketball, but secondary scoring is important when the legs get tired and the pressure is on. Two years ago, left winger Bryan Bickell stepped up with nine playoff goals when captain Toews struggled. While he has not been called upon to that capacity yet, the Hawks may need someone to chip in to survive the final round.
Tampa features an even more centralized scoring attack, with five forwards accounting for 76 percent of their goals in these playoffs. However, the name at the top of the list may surprise you. While Steven Stamkos has had an awesome spring, the emergence of Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov, have been the main propellants to Tampa Bay’s success. Both teams feature two strong lines, but with the inefficient Ryan Callahan (one goal on 39 shots) still waiting to heat up, not to mention arguably the best centre in the world in Stamkos, I’d have to lean towards the LIghtning here. Advantage: Tampa Bay
The bench boss for the Hawks is Joel Quenneville, two-time Stanley Cup champion and 20-year coaching veteran. The coach of the Lightning, Jon Cooper, is a former lawyer who is in his second full season as an NHL coach. Advantage: Chicago
The Lightning have the edge, 22.2% to 19.6%. The Lightning also lead in the regular season Power Play comparison, 18.8% to 17.6%. Advantage: Tampa Bay
Again, the Lightning have the higher mark, 81.2% to 75.5%. In the regular season, the teams were virtually even, 83.7% for Tampa, 83.4% for Chicago. Advantage: Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay lead the league in the regular season with 3.16 goals scored per game. Once the playoffs started, they have regressed to 2.75 goals per game. On the other hand, Chicago sat 17th in the league with 2.68 goals per game in the regular season, and jumped to 3.29 in the postseason, good for third overall.
The Blackhawks were also among the league’s best in goals allowed per game in the regular season, before taking a hit in the postseason, buoyed by some high-scoring games. Meanwhile Tampa has been more consistent, but average.
In short, when it comes to making a prediction on the series, I’m more inclined to trust a team that has been there before, with an experienced coach, and one that shown the ability to lift its game in the postseason. Since most of the game, and series, will be played at even strength, Tampa Bay’s special teams advantages will mean little if they can’t skate with the big boys during 5-on-5.
Stanley Cup Prediction: Blackhawks in 6