The new Blackhawks versus the old Blackhawks, that's what the 2015 Stanley Cup finals have in store for us.
I'm surely not alone in looking at the young Tampa Bay Lightning and seeing the Chicago Blackhawks, the team they face in this year's finals, on the rise from half a decade ago. You are just not a hockey fan if you're not salivating at a matchup that pits what are, for my money, the two most exciting teams in the NHL against each other. Both clubs play the game with such a high aesthetic quality, yet still know how to buckle down and defend when it matters.
You want star quality? We bring you Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook on one side; and then present you Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman on the other. Mercy, there's some serious quality on these two rosters.
The opening two rounds of the playoffs on the whole were a regression in the overall quality of the game. The conference finals brought it back with high-end play on each side. Both seven-game series were a treat to behold. The Cup finals have the chance to be one of the very best in a very long time, as long as the new kids on the block from Tampa aren't overwhelmed by the stage. They stared down Joe Louis Arena, the Bell Centre and Madison Square Garden on the way here, so I can't imagine why this stage suddenly would be that much scarier.
It is interesting that after being a top-five team in the league in shot-attempt percentage during the regular season, the Lightning have dipped under 50 percent in these playoffs, a reflection perhaps of the way the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers took time and space away from them, forcing the Lightning to adjust the way they play. They proved brilliantly in 2-0 wins in Games 5 and 7 at MSG that they are very much able to play a defense-first game if needed.
The Blackhawks have been a very good puck-possession team in the playoffs, but at the end of the day I don't see an edge here either way with two clubs that normally rate well in this category.
Where the stats might play a part is on special teams, where Tampa's power play has proved to be very dangerous over the past two rounds, while Chicago has largely struggled, though the Hawks got a few timely power-play goals late in the Western Conference finals. That includes a Toews tally to make it 2-0 in Game 7 against the Anaheim Ducks. Still, as it stands, Tampa has more mojo on the man advantage, so it will be imperative for the Blackhawks to stay out of the box.
I checked in with five rival NHL head coaches via text message Saturday night after Chicago's Game 7 win over Anaheim. Here were their quick replies on a Blackhawks-Lightning Cup finals:
Western Conference head coach: "A fast, skill series. Both teams' top 4 D excellent. Goaltenders mirror their teams. Both are good but one has experience and one does not. It's hard to bet against Chicago's experience.''
Eastern Conference head coach: "It's going to be hard not to pick Chicago because of their experience but also very dangerous to overlook Tampa. I feel Tampa has a lot of firepower and Chicago will have to be good defensively. [Corey] Crawford is good but will be tested. I think Tampa will have to think and play their games like they did in Game 7 versus the Rangers. Focus on being good defensively and take advantage of their chances. Chicago will need to respect them and take advantage of them with their experience. It should be an interesting series as Chicago has been there so many times, versus a team with talent but that seems oblivious to the pressure.''
Western Conference head coach: "Two teams with lots of forwards that can score; will be a high-scoring series. Lots of rush chances. Chicago defense will have a tough go versus all that speed. Can't dismiss 19, 2, 88 [Toews, Keith, Kane] on Chicago.''
Eastern Conference head coach: "Two dynamic forward groups. Chicago defense has the big edge if they can stay healthy. Key to Chicago offense is their defense. Think Chicago in five, maybe six games. Chicago core players get it -- they step up all the time -- strongest core in the league. High-quality leaders hold each other accountable. They have been there before, not going to let it get away now.''
Western Conference head coach: "I think Tampa has the speed to go with Chicago. I'm worried about the depth on D for Chicago. I don't know if people realize how good Tampa is skill-wise and their depth and their role players. Very well put together team. That said, how do you bet against Chicago and what their big guys do at the biggest time? Goaltending is key, obviously. I don't know if Tampa has the forecheck game to get to Chicago a la L.A. From what I have seen Tampa scores a lot off the rush and that is so hard against Chicago with their gap and trackback by their forwards. My guess? Chicago in 7."
For the Blackhawks, Kane has been dynamic as always, but for me it comes down to Toews or Keith at this stage.
Keith is playing ridiculous minutes and doing it all at both ends of the ice with a seemingly endless energy supply. He's been incredible. As for Toews, well, Captain Serious did it again. He stepped it up big time over the final three games of the series, leading the Hawks to the final two wins and scoring the two opening goals in Game 7 at Anaheim.
Said one of those NHL coaches I texted with Saturday night: "Tampa just doesn't have No. 19 from Chicago.''
No, but the Lightning have Johnson, Stamkos and Stralman, and I'd say it's a three-way race between those three for the playoff MVP on the Lightning. It says a lot about Stamkos that he's in the conversation given how he started the playoffs, with no goals in his first eight games. But he's been all-world since midway in the second round, especially in the Eastern Conference finals. Johnson leads the team in scoring and continues to be an unstoppable offensive force.
But for me -- and this might be an upset of sorts -- the nod goes to Stralman. Much like Keith, he's been doing it all at both ends of the ice. Hedman has been unreal in these playoffs and some of it has to do with the way Stralman meshes so well with him. Can't say enough about the impact Stralman has had on the Lightning all season, but especially in these playoffs.
Well, he's hardly a secret, but certainly forgotten at times given the talent around him. I just have a feeling that the old goat, Brad Richards, will find a way to have a few big moments for the Blackhawks against the team he won a Cup with in 2004. Richards had two assists in the Game 7 win at Anaheim and has the knack for big-game moments.
For the Lightning, Ryan Callahan hasn't been much of an offensive threat in these playoffs, but his game really stood out to me late in the Eastern Conference finals. He's in a checking role now, but I think you'll see his name on the score sheet a couple of times in the Cup finals.
We've gotten this far and haven't mentioned the goalie matchup, so let's fix that.
Corey Crawford has had ups and downs in these playoffs, to be sure, but he was there to be counted on in the end against the Ducks. Same goes for Ben Bishop, who at times didn't look his sharpest against the Rangers, but dropped shutouts on them in Games 5 and 7 at MSG. In fact, Bishop closed out brilliantly in all three rounds: Game 7 versus Detroit, Game 6 against the Habs and Game 7 in New York. That says a lot about his mental makeup.
To me, the goalie matchup is a slight edge to Crawford based on experience.
I'm not going to lie, I've fallen hard for the young Lightning; such a compelling group of kids surrounded by high-quality veterans. They are so much fun to watch, but it's also the way they carry themselves. Their bring-it-on attitude going into Game 7 at MSG, basically shrugging their collective shoulders at all that Rangers Game 7 history -- I just love that cockiness from a young team. The Bolts are going to be here in the Cup finals more than once over the next several years.
Whether they're ready to take down a mini-dynasty team that's aiming for a third Cup in six seasons, well, that might be a tall task. I'm sticking with the Cup pick I made in September and stuck with in early April before the playoffs: the Blackhawks. But I'm telling you, the Lightning will make this way harder on them than most people believe, and it would not shock me if Tampa won it. But for the sake of my September pick: Blackhawks in 7, in Tampa, in triple OT.