The media has created many storylines but the most popular one is that an upstart Lightning team has made it our of the East and now will face an experienced Blackhawks squad that’s seen and done it all. Playoff experience is definitely going to be a factor that will find it’s way into the series but so shall the exuberance and sheer young energy the Lightning have. Add in home ice advantage, something the Lightning will enjoy because the Eastern Conference was weaker, that allowed them to have a 32-8-1 regular season home record.
What’s the lowdown? Both teams play a very fast, aggressive style of puck-possession hockey. This style emphasizes carrying the puck through the neutral zone, which creates rush chances, and hems opponents in for long, dangerous multi-shot shifts that inevitably result in significantly more quality chances and goals for than against. The Chicago-Tampa Bay match up will be like mirror match up since their styles are similar, the winner will be decided by who can play this style the best.
But neither team is getting ahead of itself.
“Last year, in mid-April, we were feeling really, really good about ourselves,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper of going into a series that ended in a four-game loss to Montreal. “And then, six days later, not so good.” A tough post-season loss to Detroit in 2009 for the Blackhawks had a similar effect, in his first year, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said that it hardened his team. “There was a lot to learn during that playoff run.”
Both teams took painful losses and have turned them around into great runs for the Stanley Cup. The Blackhawks reconstructed their 2009 loss into a positive learning opportunity in how to become a dynasty team. Now, with five conference finals in seven years to their name, two time Stanley Cup champions with a shot at a third, the Blackhawks have arrived. “Obviously the 2010 season was when we finally broke through,” said Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman on Tuesday. “Those players were the ones that really made this thing go. When you get a group like that together, young players that show they can win, that’s what you need in this day and age.”
“We were kind of too young and stupid to even realize the magnitude of the situation we were in.” – Patrick Kane
The Lightning had a similar experience themselves that took place last season, Cooper told media about that 2014 sweep. They have learned so much about themselves this season because of it. In this post-season, the went down 3-2 to Detroit before they won that series in seven games. Then going up 3-0 over Montreal they staggered their way to victory after blowing an important chance to eliminate New York, at home, in the Eastern conference final, before having to clinch Game 7 at Madison Square Garden in front of an aggressive crowd.
“It gives your coach an ulcer when they are doing it, but ultimately they find a way,” Cooper said. “Every time there’s been that little bit of adversity, we feel like we’re down and out, they come back with a knock‑out punch. But that started [after the Montreal series last year] and the attitude has not changed.”
The Blackhawks have been paying attention to Lightning star Steven Stamkos, but one of their main missions in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final will be to shut down the Triplets line: of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, who have been so productive.
“They’ve been great – as good as any line’s been all year,” Quenneville said. “Very consistent, very quick, dangerous off the rush. A lot of trickery, a lot of maneuvering, a lot of anticipation between the three. I think that’s our primary concern going in.”
All three players have a minimum 15 postseason points ranking among the top eight in the league in playoff goals.
The Lightning have to remedy Chicago’s stars and their one man show: Jonathan Toews. They are looking for that one more step for a breakthrough to get past them, and they cannot if they don’t handle the captain thoroughly.
Many are saying that if the Lightning win, the parallels to the Blackhawks of five years ago will be very obvious: Steven Stamkos will be in the Jonathan Toews role, Victor Hedman as Duncan Keith, Tyler Johnson will be doing his bit as Patrick Kane. It would be hard not to see Tampa as a dominant force in the East for years to come IF they can beat a champion team like the Blackhawks.
Blackhawks’ Kane, for one, thinks the comparison is valid. “I could remember in 2010 we were pretty young too,” Kane said, “and I think I made a comment back then saying we were kind of too young and stupid to even realize the magnitude of the situation we were in. So that could go for them, too.”
“I think so far we have done a pretty good job of stepping up to the challenge,” Ben Bishop, Lightning goaltender said on Tuesday. The Blackhawks, he said, “have definitely been there and done that.”
No matter how young, they first they have to win a game to say that they have done that and simply not been there, and it could be tonight. But factor in inexperience and the Stanley Cup final jitters and Chicago should be a safer bet to take Game One in Tampa.