It’s not that the Blackhawks are exactly old (their average age is 28.9) but they are certainly wise in the ways of long playoff runs. This is their third trip to the finals in six years. They have won the Cup in each of their previous two appearances. Since 2009, the Blackhawks -- whose core remains basically the same -- have advanced at least to the conference finals five times, including the past three seasons. In short, they get it. The Lightning? It’s not that they’re fresh-faced kids, but the start time in the finals is likely to be past bedtime for a handful of the youthful Lightning players. OK, just kidding. But the Bolts do have an average age of 26.2 and rely heavily on younger players with little playoff experience compared to those on Chicago’s roster. Since the Lightning won the Cup in 2004, this year marks the franchise's first return trip to the Cup finals, and just its second trip to the conference finals (the previous appearance was in 2011). Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman are the only players on that 2011 squad still with the team, so that experience won't likely be much of a factor. Does it matter? Did it matter that the New York Rangers never lose at home in Game 7? Not to the Lightning. But the finals are another beast, so the veteran steel that helped Chicago come back from a 3-2 series deficit in the Western Conference finals may give them an edge over the Bolts.
The Stralman/Boyle factor
One of Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman's most important moves in the offseason was to add some veteran experience. The addition of former Rangers Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman -- who joined former Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, who was acquired at the 2014 trade deadline for Martin St. Louis -- has paid huge dividends. Both Stralman and Boyle were key playoff performers for the Rangers in their run to the finals a year ago, when they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in five games. Sometimes the pain of losing at that level and the experience that comes with it is almost as valuable as winning the whole thing. Those guys understand the yin and yang of a series, and that will be invaluable in smoothing out some nerves.
Speaking of old friends
Across the corridor from Boyle and Stralman will be another ex-Ranger, Brad Richards, who was bought out of the final six years of his nine-year, $60 million contract by the Rangers shortly after the end of the season. He signed a one-year deal with the Blackhawks and, while it hasn’t been all roses for Richards, who took some time to settle into a groove as the team’s second-line center, he has been excellent this spring and finished with a goal and six assists in the conference finals. But this series won't just be a return to the Stanley Cup finals, it will be a return to the city where Richards started his NHL career and won a Stanley Cup as the playoff MVP in 2004. "I grew up there and won a Cup there and spent eight years of my career there, so it’s going to be pretty special moment," Richards said.
Holy fireworks, Batman
Eight of the top 12 point producers in the playoffs thus far will be taking part in this series, including playoff scoring leader Tyler Johnson, the lead triplet of the Lightning’s dynamic forward combination that also includes Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. Johnson has been a whirlwind of offensive production throughout the playoffs with 21 points (12 goals, nine assists) and a league-high four game winners. The Blackhawks have a slight edge in goals per game at 3.25 compared to 2.75 for Tampa, but that’s likely a reflection of the competition the Lightning have faced in the Montreal Canadiens and likely Vezina Trophy winner Carey Price and the button-down Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist.
The Blackhawks have seven players with at least four goals, while the Lightning have five, which speaks to the impressive offensive depth Chicago boasts. It will roll out a third line of Teuvo Teravainen, Patrick Sharp and Antoine Vermette, while fourth-line players Marcus Kruger and Andrew Shaw have combined for six goals and six assists this spring. The Bolts can’t match that kind of balanced scoring attack -- or at least haven’t as of yet. Defensively, though, the ongoing issue of how much ice time Chicago's top four defenders -- Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya -- get was a central theme in the conference finals. It will be interesting to see whether fatigue becomes an issue against a Tampa team that won’t be as physical as Anaheim but may tax the top four with its speed on the puck in the offensive zone. Is it possible we see more of David Rundblad, Kyle Cumiskey or Kimmo Timonen in the finals? Given Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville’s history, the short answer is "No."
Will Quenneville start the finals with his two superstar forwards together or apart? Normally Quenneville likes Patrick Kane with Bryan Bickell and Richards, while captain Jonathan Toews has played mostly with Marian Hossa and speedster Brandon Saad. But late in the conference finals with the Blackhawks facing elimination, Quenneville shook things up, using Kane with Saad and Toews, and the trio was magic. Toews had four goals in the past three games and Kane finished with five points in the final two games of the conference finals.
We have seen the magic Toews brings to critical moments in the playoffs -- his two first-period goals in Anaheim on Saturday essentially decided Game 7 early -- and it’s something we’ve come to expect in these situations. This is the first long playoff run for Tampa captain Stamkos, who was still a youngster when the Bolts lost to Boston in Game 7 in the 2011 conference finals. After a slow start this spring (one goal in his first 11 playoff games) he has come alive and been a difference maker for the Lightning, at one point scoring in four straight games against the Rangers. He’ll need to continue upping the ante if he wants to join the Stanley Cup ring club.
Both of these teams can hurt you with the power play. The Lightning scored at least one power-play goal in five of the seven games against the Rangers in the conference finals. Now, the Lightning also allowed a power-play goal in four of seven games, and in three of those games, they allowed two power-play goals. And with all due respect to the Rangers, the Blackhawks' power play is more vital. Chicago was blanked in four of seven games against Anaheim on the power play but did score at critical times and won all three games in which it registered a power-play goal. Conversely, the Hawks lost three of the four games in which they did not score with the man advantage.
The sentimental favorites
It’s not uncommon for teams in the finals to have a player for whom their teammates are rooting to get a long-awaited Stanley Cup ring. This series has a couple with Brenden Morrow still searching for a championship at age 36 and approaching 1,000 regular-season and 112 postseason games. Morrow joined the Lightning this season and has appeared in 18 postseason games thus far without registering a point. Meanwhile, the Hawks would love to get Timonen a ring. The classy Finn was acquired at the trade deadline from the Philadelphia Flyers after missing all season with blood clotting issues. The 40-year-old has struggled at times and was a healthy scratch for the final two games of the conference finals. Facing a less physical team, perhaps Timonen will return to the lineup for the finals, although Tampa’s speed has to be problematic as well.
It’s been an up-and-down spring for both finals netminders. Corey Crawford was yanked early in the first round against the Nashville Predators in favor of Scott Darling but has rebounded nicely in leading the Blackhawks to a sweep of the Minnesota Wild and their triumph over the Ducks. Crawford’s counterpart in Tampa, Ben Bishop, has collected two shutouts (Games 5 and 7 at Madison Square Garden) in his past five games, but has allowed five goals in each of the other three. Wacky? Oh yeah. Bottom line for the Lightning is that when they have needed Bishop to be there -- like late in the first round against the Detroit Red Wings, when they probably didn’t deserve to win, and late against the Rangers -- Bishop has been rock solid.
Jon Cooper is the dynamic second-year coach of the Lightning. In his first playoff experience, the Bolts were swept by Montreal in the first round last April. A year later he’s four wins from a Cup. Cooper is razor sharp and doesn’t like to get bogged down in trying to match lines -- although he did employ his third line of Cedric Paquette, Callahan and J.T. Brown in some key defensive situations against the Rangers in Game 7 -- preferring to let his skill guys try to win the day regardless of who they’re playing against. On the other bench is Quenneville, who is continuing to build a Hall of Fame resume as the third-winningest coach in NHL history. He is one of only two active coaches with two Stanley Cup titles (along with Kings coach Darryl Sutter). Is this a mismatch, then? On paper, perhaps, but having watched the strides taken by the Lightning under Cooper, we’re guessing the Tampa coach isn’t losing any sleep over his counterpart’s thick resume.