For the first time since 2012, the Stanley Cup Final will be between teams that never faced off against each other in a playoff series. One has destiny on their side. The other has “Dynasty” attached to “Destiny”.
The Tampa Bay Lightning got to their second Stanley Cup Final appearance since winning the Cup back in 2004 by going through three Original Six teams. In the first round, they grinded out a seven-game series win over the Detroit Red Wings. In the second round, they stymied the best goaltender in the NHL, Carey Price, and dispatched the Atlantic Division champion Montreal Canadiens in six games. And then, led by the “Triplets” line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov, the Lightning did the unthinkable: beat the Presidents’ Trophy Champion New York Rangers in seven games, with the last game a 2-0 shutout at Madison Square Garden.
Their opponent, the Chicago Blackhawks, reached their third Stanley Cup Final appearance in the last six years. But the road was not easy. In their first round series against the Nashville Predators, Corey Crawford was pulled after the first period of Game 1 after giving up three goals on 12 shots. Backup goalie Scott Darling stopped all 42 shots from Nashville when he was inserted into the game, which the Hawks won in double overtime, 4-3. After Crawford gave up six goals in Game 2, head coach Joel Quenneville decided to start Darling in Game 3. After winning Games 3 and 4 on home ice, the Predators forced a Game 6 on the back of Filip Forsberg’s hat trick. In Game 6, the Predators chased Scott Darling out of the net after he gave up three goals on 12 shots in the first 11:16 of the first period. Sensing deja vu from Game 1, Crawford stopped all 13 shots from Nashville, and the Hawks ousted the Preds in six games, winning Game 6, 4-3. In the second round, the Hawks faced the Minnesota Wild for the second year in a row. The series was a relatively short one, as the Hawks swept the Wild in four straight games. However, in Game 4, Hawks defenseman Michal Rozsival was lost for the remainder of the playoffs when he shattered his ankle trying to prevent a breakaway from happening. In the Western Conference Final against the Pacific Division champion Anaheim Ducks, it was described as a heavyweight battle. After dropping Game 1, 4-1, the Hawks split the first two games by winning their second triple-overtime game in the playoffs; the longest game in franchise history. After Anaheim won Game 3, the Hawks tied the series at 2-2 with another multi-overtime win; their fourth in the playoffs. After dropping Game 5 in overtime, a game in which Jonathan Toews scored two goals in the final 1:50 of regulation to force said overtime, the Hawks headed back to Chicago, facing elimination for the first time in the playoffs. After a 5-2 win in Game 6, the Hawks headed to Anaheim looking to win their first Game 7 on the road for the first time in over 50 years. Riding off the momentum of their Game 6 win, the Hawks handed the Ducks their third straight Game 7 loss on their home ice, winning 5-3.
In this matchup, it’s speed vs. speed, defense vs. defense, goalie vs. goalie. Why speed vs. speed? Both teams rely on it to score goals. One led the NHL in goals last season (Blackhawks, 267), one led the NHL in goals this season (Lightning, 262). In those two seasons, both offenses didn’t change a lot. The Lightning do have one of the best snipers in the league in team captain Steven Stamkos, but half of the goals scored by the Bolts in the playoffs have come from the “Triplets” line. The scoring on the other side is evenly distributed on all four lines the Blackhawks roll in the game. Other than Johnson, the only other player left in the playoffs that has goals in the double-digit range belongs to Patrick Kane (10). Expect a lot of goals in the Final.
Why defense vs. defense? In the previous round, both teams didn’t not play a typical six-man defense. The Lightning used seven defensemen (Victor Hedman, Braydon Coburn, Anton Stralman, Jason Garrison, Matt Carle, Andrej Sustr, and Nikita Nesterov) when they beat the Rangers. The Bolts’ D is a mix of veterans and young guns, with the leader being the 24-year-old Hedman. The Hawks used six defensemen, but technically played four when they beat the Ducks. The leader of that defense is Duncan Keith, the two-time Norris Trophy winner who leads all defensemen in playoff points (18) and all players in average time on ice per game (31:35). Can the lightning do what the Ducks cannot do and try to exploit the Blackhawks D?
Why goalie vs. goalie? Both Ben Bishop and Corey Crawford don’t scream “Vezina Trophy winner” when you look at the stats, but both did more than enough to bring both of their teams to the Stanley Cup Final. The 6′ 7″ Bishop became just the third goalie to have two Game 7 shutouts io one playoff year. After being roughed up by the Nashville Predators in the first two games of the first round, the Corey Crawford that returned in Game 6 against Nashville looked like the Corey Crawford that won the Stanley Cup back in 2013. In Game 2, he stopped a career-high 60 shots. In Game 4, he survived a barrage of 3 goals in 37 seconds to even up the Western Conference Final at 2-2. Both are good goaltenders, but they are great when their team needed them the most.
The 2015 Stanley Cup Final going to be really great matchup. It’s going to be the old guard vs. the new guard. Destiny vs. Dynasty. The only time the Tampa Bay Lightning was in the final, a no-goal call, and an double-overtime winner led the Bolts to a seven-game series win over Calgary and the Stanley Cup in 2004. For the Blackhawks, they could establish themselves as a modern-day dynasty if they win their third Cup in six years. For me, the Hawks had done everything you can do…except win the Cup on United Center ice. The only time the Hawks won the Cup in Chicago was their first Cup championship in 1934, when they swept the Red Wings in four straight games. Will the be the first time in 81 years the Hawks win the Stanley Cup on home ice?
Prediction: CHI in 6