Your Ultimate Stanley Cup Final PreviewScott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images
The Stanley Cup final gets started tonight in Tampa, as the young Lightning face the seasoned Blackhawks. It’s a fantastic matchup, one featuring plenty of star power and two teams that have at times looked both vulnerable and invincible over the past few weeks.
The Blackhawks have won two Cups since 2010; the Lightning look poised to win a few more down the road. But it’s this year’s that is up for grabs, so let’s see if we can figure out who’s going to win this thing by breaking down all the usual categories — plus a few more.
Lightning: Tampa Bay is stacked up front, so much so that franchise player Steven Stamkos has somehow wound up as an afterthought for much of the playoffs. After a slow start to the postseason, Stamkos heated up against the Rangers with goals in four straight games, and linemates Alex Killorn and Valtteri Filppula have come along for the ride. That essentially gives the Lightning two no. 1 lines, since the “Triplets” trio of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov shows no signs of slowing down.
If there’s a concern, it’s that the top six is basically doing all the team’s scoring. Filppula has three goals, while the other five each have at least seven; by comparison, nobody else on the team has more than one. That includes guys like Ryan Callahan and Cedric Paquette, who’ve been largely invisible on the offensive side. If you’re a Lightning fan, you could look at that as a good thing — the bottom six1 are playing other roles, and if they ever did start chipping in, the offense would basically be unstoppable. But with a matchup coming for one of those top lines against Jonathan Toews and friends, there has to be at least a little bit of concern with how top-heavy the Lightning lines are.
Blackhawks: The Blackhawks feature just as much star power as the Lightning, and maybe more. Toews and Patrick Kane get most of the attention, especially when they’re playing together (as they did in the late stages of the Anaheim series). Toews is that rare player who can be dominant at both ends, and Kane’s knack for scoring big goals is becoming legendary. Mix in a young star in Brandon Saad and a pair of old ones in Marian Hossa and ex-Lightning Brad Richards, and you’ve got enough firepower in the top six to push a guy like Patrick Sharp down to the third line.
The edge: There aren’t many teams that can match the Lightning’s top six, but the Hawks are one of them. And Chicago’s better depth and more balanced scoring gives it an edge here.
Lightning: Victor Hedman is the kind of guy you might not fully appreciate until you see him play live. You watch a Lightning shift and find yourself thinking Who’s that huge guy back there? and you realize it’s Hedman (he’s listed at 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds). Then a few seconds later you think Who’s that fast guy up there? and you realize it’s Hedman again. He’s smart, skilled, and just 24 years old; it’s scary to think about what he could be in another year or two.
The rest of the blue line is solid, which is an upgrade from the unit of recent years that was often a weak link. The other key guy to watch is Anton Stralman, a longtime darling of the analytics crowd who finally seems to be breaking through to some mainstream attention. He’s not big, but he’s a skilled puck-mover and a possession monster who doesn’t make many mistakes.
Blackhawks: Duncan Keith is getting all the attention these days, and rightfully so. He’s been ridiculously good at both ends of the rink, and would probably win the Conn Smythe if voting were held today. He plays huge minutes, and at some point you’d assume that fatigue would have to become a factor, but he’s such a physical freak that maybe he really can play 30 minutes a game (with gusts to 40 in overtime) without wearing down, at least for up to seven more games.
Beyond Keith, the rest of the Hawks’ top four is excellent, with Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook, and Johnny Oduya playing big roles. Things then get dodgy, though, because the fifth and sixth slots have been a mess. The Hawks have been using some combination of David Rundblad, Kimmo Timonen, and Kyle Cumiskey and don’t seem to trust any of them, limiting their minutes and sheltering them as much as possible. That’s tough to do, especially on the road, and it tends to catch up with teams. It hasn’t really yet for the Hawks, but it would make life a lot easier if at least one of those guys could up his game enough to take some of the heat off the big four.
The edge: We’ll give the edge here to the Blackhawks, at least for as long as Keith can keep up the Superman routine, but Hedman and Stralman mean it’s not as big a gap as you might think.
Lightning: The numbers say Ben Bishop has been one of the league’s best goaltenders since becoming the full-time starter for Tampa Bay two years ago. His 2.32 goals-against average and .920 save percentage over that time both rank in the top 10 among full-time starters, and he was a Vezina finalist last year.
The eye test, at least occasionally, isn’t as kind. Part of that is due to his size; at a mammoth 6-foot-7, he sometimes doesn’t look like he has to work as hard to make saves, which makes the ones that do get past him stand out. But he also occasionally has nights when he seems to fight the puck or end up looking behind him on routine saves. Most goalies have games like that, but Bishop has had several even during this playoff run. That leads you to want to write him off on a stacked Lightning team, and that’s usually right around the point when he goes out and records a shutout in his next game. He just become the third goalie in playoff history to post two Game 7 shutouts in one season, so if you’re a disciple of the church of clutch, he might be your guy.
Blackhawks: In some ways, Corey Crawford might look across the ice at Bishop and feel like he’s looking in a mirror (or at least one of those fun-house mirrors that makes one side look gigantic). He also has posted strong numbers since becoming a starter. He also sometimes looks like he’s struggling more than the numbers say he is, and he also has had his share of tough games during the playoffs. Even the numbers over the past two seasons are nearly identical — Crawford has a 2.27/.920 stat line since the start of last season.
Crawford does have two things that Bishop doesn’t. The first is a short leash — he lost his starter’s job to Scott Darling in Round 1, which feels like years ago but still serves as a reminder that Crawford can struggle. The second is a Stanley Cup ring as a starter, earned in 2013, which serves as a reminder that he’s certainly good enough to win with.
The edge: This feels like a coin flip, but I’ll give a slight edge to Bishop and the Lightning. It might be a boom-or-bust pick; Bishop has given up either zero or five goals in each of his last five games, while Crawford has surrendered two or three in six of the last eight. This is a series in which the goaltending doesn’t figure to be dominant — it’s almost unheard of to see a Stanley Cup final matchup with neither goalie ranked in the top five for the playoffs — and given that, I’ll take the guy who seems more likely to steal a game on his own.
Lightning: The Tampa Bay power play has been very good in the playoffs, clicking at a rate of 22.2 percent, which is up from their regular-season rate of 18.8 percent. That playoff total has included a couple of big games; they had four power-play goals in a game against the Canadiens, and three in a game against the Rangers. They’ve also been nicely consistent lately, scoring at least one power-play goal in seven of the last eight games in which they’ve had at least one opportunity. The penalty kill has been reasonably good, clocking in at 83.7 percent during the regular season and 81.2 percent in the playoffs, although it struggled during the Rangers series, at one point allowing two goals in three straight games.
Blackhawks: Given all of their star power, the Chicago power play has been surprisingly average this year. They were at 17.6 percent on the regular season, good for just 20th overall, and during the playoffs they’ve been only slightly better at 19.6 percent. Their penalty kill had been slightly better, at 83.4 percent in the regular season (good for 10th), but it has fallen off to 75.5 percent in the playoffs
The edge: The Lightning have the better percentages. But there is one area to watch: The Lightning have faced far more power-play situations during their playoff run than the Blackhawks have. Despite playing just three more games, Tampa Bay has had 21 more power plays and been shorthanded 20 more times.
Lightning: At 47, Jon Cooper is one of the youngest coaches in the league. He’s also quickly developing a reputation as one of the best, taking over the Lightning late in a 2013 season that saw them finish 28th and getting them into the Cup final two years later. He’s already won championships in the USHL and AHL — both coming in his second full season, just like the one he’s in now. In a job that often forces coaches to play the role of clubhouse lawyer, he actually is one. He may even be the most interesting man in hockey.
Blackhawks: With apologies to Mike Babcock (and his accountant), Joel Quenneville is probably the best coach in the NHL. He’s trying to become just the fourth coach in the post–Original Six era to win three Stanley Cups, and this year he joined Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, and Dick Irvin as the only coaches in league history to have won 100 playoff games.
The edge: Jon Cooper may well be the next Joel Quenneville. But Joel Quenneville is the current Joel Quenneville, so a slight edge to Chicago.
Lightning: There was a time when playing three long series to get to the final meant you weren’t going to win. In fact, before last season no team in NHL history had ever won the Cup while playing more than 18 games to get the final. Then the Kings (21) faced the Rangers (20), and that was it for that stat.
So maybe it’s no big deal to point out that the Lightning have needed 20 games to get here. After all, they’re young and reasonably healthy, and they’ve had five days off since the end of their last series. But let’s just file it away in our back pocket somewhere, especially if this one goes long.
Blackhawks: While they’re also coming off a seven-game series, the Hawks did work in a second-round sweep that left them with ten days off before the conference finals. Given how much they’ve been leaning on their top four defensemen, they probably needed it.
The edge: The Blackhawks, although the Lightning’s youth counter that enough that it probably won’t end up mattering much.
The OGWAC Factor
Blackhawks: When we looked at the remaining OGWACs — that’s “Old Guy Without a Cup” — two weeks ago, we had Timonen ranked behind only Dominic Moore. With Moore and the Rangers out, that would seem to leave Timonen as the best choice. But he’s been a healthy scratch in each of the Hawks’ last two games, and there’s at least a chance he doesn’t see the ice at all in the final. A guy wearing a jersey on top of a sports coat just can’t make for a great OGWAC.
Lightning: That leaves Brenden Morrow as the best remaining option, and his campaign is starting to gain momentum.
The edge: Lightning. This is important, you guys; stop acting like it’s not.
Lightning: You don’t necessarily think of Tampa Bay as a great possession team, but it ranked fourth in the league with a score-adjusted Corsi of 53.0 percent.2 One possible caution flag: It has dipped under 50 percent during the playoffs.
Blackhawks: Chicago has long been held up as a model franchise of the analytics era, consistently finishing toward the top of the league in possession metrics. This year was no exception; its score-adjusted Corsi was second-best in the league at 53.6 percent. It also has seen a drop in the playoffs, but not as far as the Lightning — it’s at a healthy 51.3 percent.
The edge: Let’s call it even. Another stat to consider, as pointed out by Travis Yost in this TSN preview: These are two high-event teams, meaning we should be in for some exciting games.
The Old-School Narrative
Lightning: The Lightning are undeniably talented. They’re also young, and old-school thinking says that means they need to suffer through some heartbreaking losses before they can truly know how to win. This is one of the most cherished narratives in hockey, dating back most famously to the 1983 Oilers, who (allegedly) had to peer into the locker room of the beaten and battered Islanders to finally understand the sacrifices necessary to be a champion. Ignore the fact that many teams seem to skip this step altogether, including the 2004 Lightning, because hockey fans love it.
Blackhawks: While the Lightning are young and cocky, the Blackhawks are the grizzled veterans who know how to win, and they know this could be their last shot.3 These guys don’t need to read the book on winning championships; they wrote it.
The edge: If you believe in the “learn how to win” canard, it’s a big edge to the Hawks. You probably shouldn’t, since it’s 90 percent nonsense, but I’m not here to spoil your fun.
Lightning: Oh boy, do they have swagger.4 They’re young, which by definition means they’re self-confident bordering on insufferable. But they reached a new level when facing the Rangers in Game 7 in historic Madison Square Garden, a situation in which the Rangers had literally never lost. This was a situation that called for deference and a somber acknowledgment of their underdog role. Instead, the Lightning basically flipped off the hockey gods, then went out and won. Their path to the final has included beating three Original Six teams and the two best goalies in the league. It’s fair to say they’re feeling it right now.
Blackhawks: Jonathan Toews does not do swagger.
The edge: Both teams are confident, and rightly so, but the edge here goes to Tampa Bay.
Lightning: High. The Lightning are young, they play a fast, offensive style, and they seem like a likable group. Sure, like all good teams, they can shift into “boring road team” mode (just ask the Rangers), but their default setting is pretty darn fun. And did we mention the swagger?
Blackhawks: Also high. For one, the awkward pairing of Kane’s party-dude persona and Toews’s “Captain Serious” act5 will never stop being hilarious. But the rest of the team can have their moments too. They know when to dial it back — Keith goes practically comatose in postgame interviews — but there’s a personality here, and at times it even shines through on the ice. Plus, they’re a mini-dynasty, and despite what the league seems to think, those are fun.
The edge: Even. And as Bruce Arthur points out, that’s great news for hockey fans. In a copycat league where everyone seems to just look at the top of the standings and play follow-the-leader, it’s hard to imagine a better scenario than winding up with an NHL full of wannabe Lightning and Blackhawks clones.
Lightning: I took the Lightning as my Stanley Cup pick way back when the playoffs started. So if they win, I’m basically a genius.
Blackhawks: I took the Blackhawks as my Stanley Cup pick way back when the regular season started. So if they win, I’m basically a genius.
The edge: This entire playoffs has been a series of coin flips — the age of parity has made it almost impossible to pick a strong favorite out of the playoff pool. And yet, somehow, this matchup feels right. These are two well-built, deserving, and downright fun teams, and either would make a worthy Cup champion.
But only one can win. And as much as I’ve loved watching this young Lightning team emerge, I think they have to wait for their title. Not because they need to learn how to win, or because a collection of smaller skill guys can’t win a championship. I just think the Blackhawks are better right now. They’re not much better, and maybe the teams are close enough that this is really just another coin flip, but I think the Blackhawks at their best are just barely good enough to beat the Lightning at their best.
Blackhawks in seven