Stanley Cup Finals Preview

The Tampa Bay Lightning came into existence in 1993 and have won one Stanley Cup, back in 2004. The Chicago Blackhawks are an Original Six team, born in 1927 and with three Stanley Cups before the Lightning were even born. Now the Blackhawks seek their third Cup in six years. These very different heritages collide on Wednesday night when the Stanley Cup Finals begin.

While the histories may be polar opposites, the teams that will take the ice in 2015 are remarkably similar. Each team has an array of talented offensive players. Chicago brings Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp to the table. Tampa Bay counters with Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat.

If you look at the regular season numbers, the Lightning were by far the more impressive offensive team. Stamkos’ 43 goals were second in the entire league. Johnson and Kucherov were Top 20 scorers. Palat’s 47 assists ranked 12th in the NHL. As a team, Tampa Bay scored more goals than anyone else.

Chicago’s offense lagged well behind in the regular season, ranking only 17th in goals scored, but it’s been a different story in the playoffs. The Blackhawks are slightly better than the Lightning in playoff scoring. Kane, who missed over a quarter of the regular season, has 10 playoff goals, second-best in the postseason behind only Tampa’s Johnson, who has lit the lamp twelve times.

The predominance of highly skilled offensive talent has led observers to conclude that we’re going to get a wide-open series. That may well be the case, but before we go there, let’s note that Tampa Bay has not necessarily played that way in their biggest games.

During the regular season, the Tampa defense ranked in the top five at preventing shots on goal and they adopted conservative strategies in Games 5 & 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals at New York. Both games resulted in a 2-0 shutout. If the Lightning went that route against a defense-minded team like the Rangers, how much greater will the temptation to do so be against the Blackhawks?

There’s no doubt Chicago wants to push the pace.  They played wide open all season long, ranking high in shots on goal and low in shots allowed. Defenseman Duncan Keith is probably the league’s best offensive player at his position, a brilliant passer and you want to bring him in tight on the offensive side, to be part of a sustained attack, rather than having Keith lay back to prevent odd-man rushes the other way.

It’s a philosophy that leaves goaltender Corey Crawford exposed and trusts that either he can rise to the occasion or that, if he can’t, the Blackhawks will score enough to make up for it. The record book says this is the right approach, and I would be surprised if the Lightning willingly go along with it.

What makes this more interesting is that during the season, Tampa goalie Ben Bishop was one of the best in the league and he has often been outstanding in the playoffs. By rights, the Lightning should be more able to expose the goalie for the sake of opening up the offense, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Bishop has also had some complete breakdowns, leading to the strategy adjustment by head coach John Cooper. Tampa has shown its versatility by winning with defense.

The NHL playoffs are a goaltender’s game, and if either Bishop or Crawford step up with a great series, that alone will decide who wins it. More realistically, each goalie will likely have a couple great games, a couple that leave their fans banging heads against the wall, and the talent between the pipes will ultimately decide who wins.

Tampa Bay has home-ice advantage, an edge that really doesn’t mean anything in the NHL. Bishop’s best games in the conference finals were on the road and he was 3-for-3 in poor games in front of the home fans. Both the Lightning and Blackhawks won Game 7s on the road to advance to the Finals.

Oddsmakers make Chicago a modest favorite, at (-140), while Tampa Bay can bet at (+120). Those seem like fair betting numbers. While I’m loathe to ever go against this group of Blackhawk players, I also like what I’ve seen from the Lightning in clutch situations throughout the playoffs. I think Tampa is ready to step up and claim the Cup in a hard-fought series.