Stanley Cup Finals Preview - Tampa Bay vs. Chicago

Tampa Bay Lightning Ben Bishop looks to put a glove on the puck in the third period against the New York Rangers in game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden in New York City on May 29, 2015. The Lightning defeated the Rangers 2-0, win the series in 7 games and advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
Tampa Bay Lightning Ben Bishop looks to put a glove on the puck in the third period against the New York Rangers in game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden in New York City on May 29, 2015. The Lightning defeated the Rangers 2-0, win the series in 7 games and advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

At times it has been anything but pretty, but the Tampa Bay Lightning won't complain about the results.

For the first time since 2004, when the franchise claimed its one and only Stanley Cup title, the Lightning are Eastern Conference champions.


Getting back to the Cup Finals this spring hasn't been easy, however, as the Bolts have needed to win a pair of Game 7s. The latest of those seven-game battles came in the East finals against the New York Rangers, who made the Tampa defense and goaltender Ben Bishop look silly at times.

But, Bishop and the Bolts proved themselves adept at righting the ship. The goaltender was pulled from a 7-3 home loss to the Rangers in Game 6 after surrendering five goals only to rebound with a 22-save shutout to anchor the decisive victory of the series in New York City. It was Bishop's third shutout in his first NHL postseason. Two of them have come in the ultimate pressure situation, as he also managed to shut out Detroit in Game 7 of Tampa's opening-round victory.


As a whole, the 28-year-old American's initial foray into the Stanley Cup playoffs has gone very well. Bishop enters the final round with a .920 save percentage and a 2.15 goals against average. His three postseason shutouts are also one shy of the regular-season total he gained over 60 starts.

On most nights, Tampa's explosive offense helps make life a little easier for Bishop. The Bolts are averaging 2.75 goals per game through 20 postseason tilts. That's a solid clip, even if it is considerably less than Tampa's regular-season output of 3.16 GPG, which led the NHL.

Captain Steven Stamkos is the club's most recognizable face, but the star centerman has been overshadowed at times this spring by three guys who skate on another line.

Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, known collectively as "The Triplets," are technically Tampa's No. 2 line, but the unit has been second to nobody in the 2015 postseason.

Johnson, the group's speedy centerman, is leading the NHL playoffs in both goals (12) and points (21). Kucherov, meanwhile, is third in the league with 19 points on nine goals and 10 assists. Together, Johnson and Kucherov have produced seven game-winning goals for the Lightning this spring.


Palat has hardly been a slouch either, recording seven goals and eight assists from his right wing position.

Stamkos has made his career playing center, but head coach Jon Cooper has used the sniper more as a right wing as the playoffs have progressed. Whether he's skating down the middle of the ice or down the right side, he is one of the NHL's deadliest scorers.

Tampa's captain failed to find the net in the first eight games of this postseason, but has seven goals over his last 12 outings. Stamkos has 17 points (7G, 10A) this spring, setting a personal best for production in a single playoffs.

With Stamkos primarily playing wing, Valtteri Filppula has assumed center duties on the top line. The Finnish veteran has three goals and eight helpers. Alex Killorn often plays left wing opposite Stamkos and also is enjoying a terrific postseason, notching seven goals and nine assists.

Ryan Callahan, meanwhile, was once part of the Stamkos line, but had been dropped down in the rotation. The switch is a better fit for the winger, who is at his best when he gets to play use his forechecking ability and play a two-way game.


Callahan isn't the only Tampa forward capable of playing a responsible, team- first defensive role. Veterans such as Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow offer similar attributes as do younger options like J.T. Brown, Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette.

As noted above, Tampa's defense struggled to contain the Rangers offense at certain junctures, but overall the unit has been a reliable group for Cooper. The two most impressive guys are Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, the Swedish duo who form the club's superb top pairing.

At 24 years of age, Hedman has matured into the all-around star defenseman Tampa believed he would be when it picked him second overall at the 2009 draft. The 6-foot-6, 230-pound Swede can skate, stick handle and play with a physical edge. He is leading the Lightning defense this spring with 10 points (1G, 9A), is sporting a plus-11 rating and pacing the club in ice time by averaging 23 minutes, 24 seconds of action per night.

Stralman, who left the Rangers to sign a lucrative free-agent deal last summer, has one goal, six assists and a plus-two rating this postseason while logging 22:13 of ice time per game.


Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn make up a strong second pairing, while Matt Carle and Andrej Sustr are the third duo. Nikita Nesterov is usually the guy drawing into the lineup when Copper chooses to use seven defensemen, which has happened often.

While watching Nesterov move the puck up ice, it's easy to see why Cooper would rather have him in the lineup over another forward. Although he is averaging only 11:37 of ice time per game this postseason, the 22-year-old Russian boasts a goal and five assists to place him third in scoring on the Tampa blue line.

There is good and bad news to report regarding the Bolts' special teams play. Tampa entered the New York series with an 18-percent success rate on the power play this postseason before scoring seven times on 22 chances (31.8 percent) against the Rangers. On the other hand, the penalty kill struggled mightily, yielding seven power-play goals on 24 chances (70.8 percent).

Tampa's penalty kill rate is at 81.2 percent for the postseason, while the power play is clicking at 22.2 percent.


REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 48-28-6 (3rd Place, Central)

2015 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Nashville 4-2 in conference quarterfinals, defeated Minnesota 4-0 in conference semifinals, defeated Anaheim 4-3 in conference finals


Dynasty isn't a word that gets thrown around NHL circles much these days. With the salary-cap era in full swing it's difficult for teams to keep a championship roster intact long enough to win multiple championships over a short span.

Then there's the Chicago Blackhawks, a club with a chance to claim its third Stanley Cup in six seasons. Depending on your definition, that may not qualify as a dynasty but it could be about as close as we're going to get these days.

The Blackhawks reached the Cup Finals this spring by beating Anaheim in a tough seven-game battle for the Western Conference title. Chicago faced elimination against the Ducks, falling behind 3-2 in the series before winning two straight, including the decisive Game 7 in Anaheim. The Blackhawks outscored the Ducks by a combined 10-5 score over the final two games.

Of course, Chicago has experienced roster turnover from year to year while winning championships in 2010 and '13. Still, general manager Stan Bowman has made some tough decisions along the way in order to keep the most important pieces of the puzzle in the fold.

That core group is led by captain Jonathan Toews, one of the league's best two-way players and arguably hockey's greatest leader. Toews is joined by fellow star forwards Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp and defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.


Chicago's biggest strength lies in its forward depth, which can create serious matchup problems for opposing teams. Keith and Seabrook's offensive production from the back end only adds to the Blackhawks' firepower.

All told, the 'Hawks boast seven players with double digits in points during these playoffs. Fifteen different players have scored a goal and 12 of them have posted two goals or more. As a whole, the Blackhawks are averaging 3.29 goals per game this spring after notching 2.68 GPG during the regular season.

Kane is second to only Tampa's Johnson in scoring with 10 goals and 20 points while playing in three fewer games. Toews isn't far behind the speedy Kane, recording nine goals and nine assist over 17 postseason contests.

As he always seems to do, the captain came through with some of his best performances when it mattered most against Anaheim. The centerman scored twice in Game 7 against the Ducks and compiled five goals and an assist over the final four tilts of the West finals.

Toews has 99 points (38G, 61A) over 111 career playoff games, an impressive level of production considering "Captain Serious" is often called upon to line up against the other team's top line.


Kane, a flashy winger with the ability to dazzle with his tremendous stickhandling and skating ability, has averaged a little more than a point- per-game during his postseason career. He enters the 2015 Cup Finals with 111 points (47G, 64A) in 110 games.

Hossa has registered four goals and nine assists this spring, while Sharp has four goals and eight assists. Brandon Saad, a 22-year-old winger who is quickly becoming a key member of Chicago's core group, has six goals and two assists this postseason.

Andrew Shaw provides grit and the willingness to score from the difficult areas. He has four goals and five assists this spring. Rookie Teuvo Teravainen also has impressed during his first postseason run, notching two goals and four assists over 12 games.

In addition to his star players, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville also can call upon a stable of steady forwards to get the job done. Playoff veterans like Bryan Bickell, Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette allow Quenneville to roll four capable lines at the opposition.

Toews (2010) and Kane (2013) won the Conn Smythe Trophy after Chicago's recent title runs, but if the Blackhawks win it all again this spring, it could be Keith's turn to claim the award.


Keith is leading all blueliners with 18 points (2G. 16A) and both of his goals have been of the game-winning variety. He also is sporting a plus-13 rating while averaging 31:35 of ice time per contests.

Seabrook, meanwhile, has six goals and four assists from the back end. He leads all defensemen in goals this postseason.

Keith and Seabrook are sometimes paired together, but other times Quenneville pairs Keith with Niklas Hjalmarsson, who is an underrated part of Chicago's blue line. Hjalmarsson has one goal and five assists this spring and is second to Keith on the team in average ice time (26:33).

Johnny Oduya rounds out the top-four defensive group and is the only other Chicago blueliner to play in all 17 games in these playoffs.

Kimmo Timonen played the first 15 games this spring, but was a healthy scratch in both Games 6 and 7 against Anaheim. Quenneville could continue to bench the 40-year-old Timonen in the Cup Finals while tabbing Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad to make up the lightly used third pairing.

After getting benched in the first round against Nashville, Corey Crawford, the club's goaltender from the 2013 title run, has regained a firm hold on the starting job. He supplanted Scott Darling before the end of the first round and hasn't let go since.


Following his monumental struggles against the Predators, Crawford is back to his old capable self and is sporting a 2.56 GAA and .919 save percentage in 14 games this spring.

Chicago's special teams performance have been a mixed bag. The club has a solid 19.6 percent (10-of-51) success rate on the power play in the 2015 postseason, but a penalty kill percentage of 75.5 (37-of-49) leaves a lot to be desired. Luckily, the Blackhawks remain dangerous offensively when on the penalty kill, recording three short-handed goals to tie the Lightning for the playoff lead in that category.


The Lightning have defeated three Original Six teams (Detroit, Montreal and the Rangers) to reach this stage, becoming the first team in league history to beat three Original Six clubs in the same postseason.

Of course, if Tampa can extend that record run against the NHL's oldest clubs it will get to celebrate a Cup title for the second time since entering the league as an expansion team back in 1992.

The funny thing is, when Chicago was only one of six teams it didn't have as much success at winning titles as it does now when the odds are 1-in-30. The Blackhawks won three Cups (1934, 1938 and 1961) during the Original Six era and now have a chance to equal that haul in a span of only six years.


This series will mark the first playoff meeting between the Blackhawks and Bolts, but Tampa does have the upper hand in the recent regular-season history. The Lightning have taken six of the past seven encounters, with five of those meetings going beyond regulation.

Chicago and Tampa split two meetings in 2014-15. Each team claimed a victory on home ice, with the Blackhawks notching a 3-2 shootout win on Nov. 11 before the Lightning registered a 4-0 decision on Feb. 27. The loss in Tampa was the first game after Kane suffered a broken collarbone that sidelined him from the end of February until his return in Chicago's playoff opener.

Stamkos was the leading scorer in the season series, posting two goals and an assist over the two meetings versus the Blackhawks. Bishop started both games against Chicago and stopped 65-of-67 shots over the two games. He made 28 saves in the home shutout win over the visiting Hawks.

Crawford earned the shootout win with a 25-save performance on Nov. 11 before getting the night off when Chicago visited Amalie Arena in February.

This series should offer plenty of exciting hockey, as both teams possess loads of offensive skill and love to play fast-paced games. In the end, however, the experience of the Blackhawks should trump the youthful exuberance of the Lightning.


Expect Chicago to pick up another title in what should be a highly- entertaining matchup.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Blackhawks in 6


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