The 2014-15 NHL Season is nearing its end, with the Stanley Cup Finals beginning on Wednesday, June 3rd. This year’s coup de grace features the Eastern Conference Champion Tampa Bay Lightning pitted against the recent Cup Champions in 2010 and 2013, the Chicago Blackhawks. Let’s recap how each team got to the big stage, and how their matchups will dictate the series, culminating in a mildly surprising Cup Champion.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Recap
This year’s Tampa Bay Lightning team had some lofty expectations placed on its shoulders, one year after being disappointingly eliminated by the Montreal Canadiens. They had a new captain, Steven Stamkos, a goalie coming off of a Vezina Trophy nomination in Ben Bishop, and a core consisting of improving youngsters Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov, plus incoming veterans on defense to shore up a leaky group. Needless to say, it was Stanley Cup or bust in Tampa Bay, and they have delivered thus far. Stamkos had another other-wordly season, Bishop continued his strong play, and Johnson, Palat, and Kucherov became the “Triplets Line”, a killer combination of offense, defense, and speed. Factor in the additions of Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn to the defense plus the maturation of Victor Hedman into a number-1 blueliner and this Tampa Bay team has a stacked roster. The Lightning had some trouble eliminating the Detroit Red Wings, extracting payback on the Canadiens, and finally disposing of the heavily-favored New York Rangers, but ultimately persevered in each series thanks to Ben Bishop’s heroics. This team is firing on all cylinders at the right time with a Stanley Cup in the balance.
Chicago Blackhawks: Recap
By typical Blackhawk standards, the 2014-15 rendition of the bunch was a colossal disappointment, barely eclipsing 100 points and not winning the Central Division. However, 25 other teams would have willingly taken those results, which led to another Stanley Cup Finals berth. Captain Jonathan Toews led the way as usual, and Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa always provide scoring punch, but the 2015 Hawks struggled too much defensively and in goal, which led to the desperate trade for Kimmo Timonen, who did little to help. The Hawks, and goalie Corey Crawford, got their act together in the nick of time, riding their momentum to the pinnacle of sport, Lord Stanley’s Cup. On their quest, the Hawks dispatched the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild before outlasting the Anaheim Ducks in 7 hard-fought games. This Blackhawk team may be flawed, but they still put up a fight and their experience will be their greatest attribute on the way to raise the Cup again.
Tampa Bay Lightning: X-Factor
Depth. The Lightning’s “Triplets Line” has to be at its best in order to take down the Blackhawks. Tyler Johnson must be the focal point on offense and defense that the team can rally around. Steven Stamkos will score goals no matter what, so it is the secondary scoring that must be on point to succeed. Given Valtteri Filppula, Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle, and the Triplets, the Lightning have more depth on offense than the Blackhawks, and their defensive advantage is obvious; the Lightning routinely dress 7 quality defensemen while the Blackhawks struggle to scrounge up 5. The depth of the Lightning is their greatest X-Factor.
Chicago Blackhawks: X-Factor
Star Power and Experience. The Blackhawks have two undefinable qualities that help them accomplish the impossible even when the deck is stacked against them, as it is now. The intangible experience of winning 2 Cups recently and having a core oozing finesse will help the Blackhawks immensely. The Lightning have no holdovers from their Cup-winning team of 2004, while the Blackhawks have largely the same team as they did in 2013 and even 2010. This chemistry and camaraderie pays dividends after playing for 8 months together when only 4 more wins are needed. The naive Lightning are out of their league in terms of experience.
The Lightning Will Win If…
Ben Bishop plays the way he has when up against the ropes. Ben Bishop has been inconsistent this postseason, but when the Lightning need him most, he comes through in a big way; just ask the Red Wings, Canadiens, and Rangers in their elimination games. The Lightning certainly need him now, and it could cost Bishop if he can’t regroup for the big games. He has thus far, and cannot afford another slip-up like he had in Game 6 versus the Rangers. Bishop has to be Conn Smythe-worthy in order to supply a Championship to a city hungry for one.
The Blackhawks Will Win If…
They get contributions from their depth. Chicago needs their 5th and 6th defensemen, no matter if they’re Kyle Cumiskey, David Runblad, or even Kimmo Timonen. They cannot afford to keep taxing Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in the form of 30-plus minutes. The 3rd and 4th offensive lines need to perform too. Fringe players like Brad Richards, Andrew Shaw, Antoine Vermette (who required a hefty sum at the trade deadline), and Bryan Bickell have to shoulder some of the load that Toews, Kane, Hossa, Patrick Sharp, and Brandon Saad have carried dutifully all postseason. If Chicago can roll with all 18 skaters dressed, they can definitely win the big one.
This has the potential to be one of the greatest Stanley Cup Finals in recent memory, which is really saying something when you consider the past 5 finals that we have witnessed. Both of these teams have overcame some adversity on the way, and neither team is a perfect favorite like the Ducks or Rangers would have been. It all comes down to depth and goaltending, and right now I believe that the Lightning have a heavy edge in both categories. This will be a long series with some Overtime fireworks likely coming, but the Lightning will prevail and win their first Championship since the Dave Andreychuk-led 2004 team.
Lightning in 7.