Tampa Bay Lightning vs Chicago Blackhawks
Game 1: @Tampa Bay June 3
Game 2: @Tampa Bay June 6
Game 3: @Chicago June 8
Game 4: @Chicago June 10
Game 5: @Tampa Bay June 13*
Game 6: @Chicago June 15*
Game 7: @Tampa Bay June 17*
Tampa Bay Forwards
The Lightning has what are perhaps the top two lines in the league. Steven Stamkos, Valtteri Filppula, and Alex Killorn are their first line. Midway through the conference finals series against New York, Stamkos finally found his playoff goal-scoring touch, and that line is dangerous every shift. The “Triplets” line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat are a nightmare for the opposing coach to match up his defensive unit. Johnson leads the league in playoff scoring with 12 goals, 9 assists and a +6 rating. The Lightning also have former Dallas Stars captain Brendan Morrow. Although he may be a role player, only getting 6-8 minutes a game, he can play his physical brand of hockey without taking the amount of punishment he took when he was in Dallas. Morrow is their veteran locker room presence and the oldest player on the roster by 5 years.
As good as the top two lines for Tampa Bay are, Chicago can answer by having the ability to roll all 4 of their lines without hesitation. They are led by Jonathan Toews and a healthy Patrick Kane. During their playoff run of 17 games, Toews has 9 goals, and 9 assists for 18 points, and is a +5 in playoff games, while Kane has mixed in 10 goals and 10 assists for 20 points, and a +6 rating. Chicago also has the only Conn Smythe winner in Tampa Bay history, Brad Richards, who should make his presence known to his former club. Brandon Saad has had an amazing playoff run, and is sometimes on a line with Kane and Toews. Some may say Patrick Sharp is “buried” on the third line, but it may be done on purpose. Sharp being on the third line presents a difficult defensive assignment for Tampa Bay to match up; it could be a huge mismatch that could prove to be pivotal in the series
As great as the top two lines are for Tampa Bay, the Blackhawk group has two lines to match them, and then two more to throw at the Lightning. The ability to run 4 lines throughout an entire game can wear on a defense. Maybe not the first or second game, but the end of the series could have the Tampa Bay will to win tested.
Tampa Bay Defense
The last series against New York gave me the confidence to say that the pairing of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman are one of, if not the best set of blueliners in the league. They can shut down the opposing top line and then dare the other three lines to beat them. If Tampa Bay has a fault, it is waiting to see if the bottom end of the defense can match the play of Stralman and Hedman. If not, they may be a liability.
If Hedman and Stralman aren’t the top defensive pair in the league, then Chicago has them with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Keith is second in the playoffs in minutes played per game, with 31:35. Niklas Hjarlmarsson is on the second unit, and has the ability to be a top defenseman in the league for years to come. The third pair of David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey could be where Tampa Bay tries to strike. If they can play well as a pair, goals will be hard to come by for the Lightning.
This is due to the experience of wins and knowing what it takes to make the final push to be the first team to 16 wins in the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Netminder
Ben Bishop is coming up large when Tampa Bay needs him. Bishop may have had a bad game 6 against New York, giving up 7 goals that night, but he was perfect in game 7, where he was a 2-0 winner. Bishop has posted a 12-8 record with a 2.15 goals against and a save percentage of .920. He is the first goalie in history to send his team to the Stanley Cup Final with a road shutout in game 7 and the first to have two shutouts in his first two game 7s of his career. But as the game 6 outing against the Rangers showed, he can be prone to giving up goals in bunches.
Corey Crawford…the first thing I think of is experience. He had a shaky start to the playoffs, but once he finished off Nashville in round one, he has been solid. Crawford has put up a 9-5 record during the playoffs with a 2.56 GAA and a save percentage of .919. Crawford beat a great young goalie in the Western Conference Finals and should use that to fuel his play in the final round.
Even though I may see Chicago as having an advantage in the three areas of focus, it is by the slimmest of margins. This series should give us what all hockey fans want at this time of year: a seven game series with a few overtime games sprinkled in. In the end, I feel Chicago wins this in 7 games.
Matt Molina is a Contributor at The Scoop. Follow him on Twitter at @MattMMolina.