There was something that did not feel just about the Tampa Bay Lightning going into the postseason as a second seed. It seemed odd that they finished just shy of the Montreal Canadiens in the Atlantic Division standings, considering they won all five head-to-head meetings. In the postseason, the Lightning continued their domination over their division rival, then showed that their 3-0 record against the New York Rangers was also no fluke. So here they are, four wins shy of winning their first Stanley Cup championship since 2004. Standing in their way will be the modern-day NHL dynasty known as the Chicago Blackhawks, gunning for their third Cup since 2010. Naturally, the Blackhawks are prohibitive favorites, but is that just? The teams split their two regular-season meetings, and Tampa Bay is 7-3 on the road in the postseason. They will have home-ice in this series, which gets underway tomorrow evening. A look now at how the series breaks down:
There really isn’t much between these two franchises. Obviously this is their first postseason meeting, and they met just twice during the regular season. Back in November, the Blackhawks prevailed at home in a shootout, 3-2. In late February, the Lightning cruised to a 4-0 win, but that happened to be just the second game the Hawks played after losing star right wing Patrick Kane to a broken collarbone. Overall, the Lightning have actually won six of the last seven meetings between the clubs dating back to the 2010-11 season, but did not face each other during Chicago’s 2012-13 championship season.
These two teams possess the postseason’s two leading point-scorers in Kane (20 points) and Lightning second-year center Tyler Johnson (21). Tampa Bay (3.16) led the NHL in goals per game average during the regular year, while the Blackhawks were just 17th (2.68). Surprisingly, both teams were average in terms of their power play, but that has picked up in the playoffs. The Lightning (22.2%) and Blackhawks (19.6%) have both been clutch with the extra-man advantage. While Johnson has grabbed more of the headlines as an emerging star, right wing Nikita Kucherov has quietly been a big-time scorer with nine goals, tied for fourth with Hawks center Jonathan Toews. One big key for the Lightning will be getting a little more from center Steven Stamkos, who scored four goals in the Eastern Conference finals against the Rangers but had only netted three in the first two rounds combined. Edge: Even.
Corey Crawford always seems to get neglected in the discussion of the game’s elite goalies, and it didn’t help his cause when he got benched in the opening round against Nashville in favor of Scott Darling. It was Crawford who got the win when Chicago beat Tampa Bay, but Darling was burned for four goals in the game the Lightning won. Crawford, who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2013, has allowed 2.56 goals per game in the playoffs, winning nine games, while Darling has a 2.22 GAA with three wins. The real fickle mistress here is Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, whose 2.15 GAA is somewhat deceiving in that he allowed five goals in a game three times in the seven-game series with New York. He is a towering presence at 6’7″ and can be lock-down… or not. Edge: Blackhawks.
It’s so hard to predict anything in sports, but it’s also hard not to feel like the Blackhawks’ experience and recent success could wear on the Lightning a little. Still, one admirable thing about this Tampa Bay team is that it doesn’t seem to get intimidated by anyone, and has bounced back from adversity time and again. Head coach Jon Cooper has won at every level so far except the pros and brings a certain quiet confidence, which is in somewhat stark contrast to the more brash, demonstrative Joel Quenneville. Home ice hasn’t seemed to do much for teams this postseason, even the Lightning, but it should feel like an accomplishment for Tampa Bay that they will open up the Stanley Cup final at Amalie Arena after not even winning its division. Edge: Even.
It seems a little too easy and convenient to pick the Blackhawks. They are understandably favored and the assumption is the Lightning will fret at playing a team that has won two titles in the past half-decade playing in one of the most crazed sports cities in the U.S. Still, I feel like the Lightning are a lot more similar in style and makeup to Chicago than people think, and call it part gut feeling and part sentiment, but I like Tampa Bay to find a way to conjure up memories of its 2004 title run. They may end up doing it in L.A. Kings fashion, winning a third do-or-die game. Prediction: Lightning in 7.