The Chicago Blackhawks vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning is about as perfect a matchup as you could ask for in the Stanley Cup Final this postseason. Well, save for the Capitals and the Ducks, in a battle to see how could blow four games first.
The Lightning are at peak swagger right now. They’ve gone through the two best goalies currently drawing oxygen on this planet to get here. With due respect to Corey Crawford’s strong play in the conference final, they’re going to look down the ice and mutter, ‘that guy? Really?’.
Then their eyes are going to glance up and catch the stoic glare of Jonathan Toews. They’ll see Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, torching their stick blades; they’ll see Marian Hossa and a revitalized Brad Richards, for whom is this not their first rodeo; they’ll see a tireless Duncan Keith and a big-game Brent Seabrook, still skating around and never tiring.
The last two games of the Western Conference Final reminds us that the NHL is split up into two kinds of players: The ones that are at their best when championships are on the line, and the ones that do not. Which is to say “the Chicago Blackhawks and nearly everyone else.”
The first essential question about the Lightning: Have they learned how to do what the Blackhawks do? Are two Game 7 wins in the 2015 playoffs, including one on the road Where No Team Had Won Before, enough of an education for them?
Tampa Bay is confidence about a lot of things, but they should be confident in this: They played a perfect road game in Game 7 against the Rangers. And that was after playing a perfect road game against them in Game 5. It was a game-plan that assumed offensive success from their forwards, while focusing on “remembering their net” in the defensive zone to support Ben Bishop and owning the neutral zone with their speed.
Which is to say that this series could be a little more chess-matchy than free-wheeling, especially if the Blackhawks clamp down on them defensively.
The second essential question for the Lightning: Can their top six find their space and contribute mightily when facing the Blackhawks?
Toews is one of the best defensive centers in hockey. One assumes his unit, whatever the configuration, will be tasked with defending the Triplets. The Stamkos line will go power-for-power with the Blackhawks’ next best line. They’ll never see anyone but the top four on defense from the Blackhawks.
The Lightning’s top six scored 21 of their 22 goals in the series against the Rangers. They can’t be so top heavy against the Blackhawks, especially when Chicago generates offense throughout its lineup (13 players with at least five points; the Lightning have nine, despite playing three more games).
This Final is just superb on several levels, all of them springing from the “champions” vs. “the next wave.” From Cooper vs. Quenneville to cocky confidence vs. Captain Serious to the South vs. The Original Six.
There are some that see this as the Blackhawks’ last best chance to win with this group before they’re capped out. If so, it’s their last chance to add another jewel to the crown as NHL 2.0’s most dynastic team.
But if nothing else, the Lightning have shown a gleeful willingness to knock that crown off the heads of supposed hockey royalty.
Strap yourselves in. This could be a classic.
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