Matthew Coller and Editor-in-Chief Timo Seppa combine to outline the Stanley Cup Final
Here’s something we don’t get to say every year: The two best teams in the NHL are in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning did not finish with the best records in the league, but they were fourth and second, respectively, in goal differential and second and fourth in Corsi Percentage.
As those numbers would suggest, the two teams are practically mirror images of each other. The Blackhawks and Lightning have rock star forwards, horse defensemen and top notch coaches.
They also have goalies that are, well, questionable.
So how do we go about analyzing and predicting a series that appears so even?
Matchups are a good place to start…
Tampa Bay Offense vs. Chicago Defense
The Lightning have proven they can beat elite goalies. After taking down a rookie in round one, they blew past likely Vezina winner Carey Price and scored enough to defeat the King Henrik Lundqvist.
They sport the league’s most impressive group of forwards top to bottom, starting with their superstar Steven Stamkos. After taking criticism in the first round for being slowed by Pavel Datsyuk and the Detroit Red Wings, the 25-year-old forward has broken out with 17 points in 20 games. Interestingly, he has also embraced a move from center to wing, playing alongside Val Filppula for much of the postseason.
Stamkos scored his career high in goals in 2011-12 when he netted 60, but you can argue that his game has never been better than in the last two series’. The former first overall pick has acted as more of a playmaker and two-way player during the playoffs than at any point in his career. He has been an impact player with his physical play and forecheck along with using his incredible vision and passing ability to set up teammates.
This makes Stamkos the most dangerous player on the ice for Tampa Bay, even if others have outscored him in the postseason.
In Game 7 against the Anaheim Ducks, the Chicago Blackhawks were able to get favorable matchups, keeping Jonathan Toews away from Anaheim’s shutdown center Ryan Kesler. The big question for the Lightning will be how they keep Stamkos away from Toews.
While there’s an argument to be made for Tyler Johnson as a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate – and he does lead the playoffs with 21 points – Stamkos should be the focus of Toews, who should be considered a Top 5 two-way center in the league.
Assuming Chicago opts for that matchup, they’ll have to get creative with facing The Triplets line of Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov.
During the regular season, the three were all above 2.5 points per 60 minutes, with Johnson leading the entire NHL at 3.0 per 60. If Chicago is playing Brad Richards next to Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks will want to avoid being matched up against the little crew of dynamos. Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger and Antoine Vermette are the most likely candidates, with Shaw being the best option.
Tampa Bay is more than just two lines, however. Their third line features former Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, who has struggled during the playoffs but could be ready to break out after some time off to get back to 100 percent.
Another interesting tactic to watch is that Cooper will use two fourth line forwards Brendan Marrow and Brian Boyle along with Steven Stamkos for the occasional offensive zone faceoff.
On the blueline, the formula for Chicago is simple: Duncan. Keith.
One major storyline from the Western Conference Final was the Blackhawks’ struggles with their third pair. Kimmo Timonen and David Runblad mixed in, but were ineffective – that’s being polite.
Keith played Chris Pronger numbers in terms of ice time at over 32 minutes per game. Expect him to do the same in the Cup playoffs. Though his chemistry in the past has been with Brent Seabrook, he has spent this year’s postseason alongside Nicklas Hjalmarsson, who provides a strong defensive presence when it comes to slowing opponents at the blueline.
Keith should be the Conn Smythe Trophy winner if the Blackhawks succeed in the series. The only concern is whether those 32 minutes per game eventually catch up to him. They sure didn’t against the Ducks.
Chicago Offense vs. Tampa Bay Defense
When it comes to the playoffs, there aren’t two forwards you’d rather have than Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
The fact that they do not need each other to succeed – unlike Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry – makes them all the more dangerous. Kane can raise the play of nearly anyone he is on the ice with, and has done so with Richards. The American-born star has 20 points in 17 games, including two filthy assists in Game 7 against the Ducks. He presents matchup problems no matter who the Lightning decide to use against him, especially when it comes to zone entries. There is not a player in the league who is more slick or shifty at entering the offensive zone, creating space and finding an open trailer. This presents an impossible task for the Tampa Bay forwards – possibly the Triplet line.
Toews and Hossa are a different kind of beast. The Lightning defensemen will feel their wrath along the walls and down low. Both players have a pitbull mentality that results in winning loose pucks and wearing down opponents.
Victor Hedman, who has become a superstar in his own right during this postseason, will feel the brunt of the Toews/Hossa combo. The 6-foot-6 defensemen will not only have to beat the two two-time Cup winners for loose pucks, but escape their relentless pursuit when exiting the defensive zone. Brandon Saad is a terrific complimentary player, scoring 2.1 points per 60 minutes during the regular season, a shade higher than 2.0 of Marian Hossa.
Tampa Bay has a secret weapon when getting out of the D-zone, though. They signed Anton Stralman in the offseason to add an intelligent, puck-savvy defender alongside the at-times wild Hedman. Stralman has been dominant in the playoffs, often sending his team at full speed through the neutral zone with a quick pass.
Tampa Bay likely has the advantage in depth offensively, but there are several “don’t sleep on” players that could end up coming up big. Rookie Teuvo Teravainen was given only limited minutes during his 34 regular season games, but has shown flashes of his high-end offensive talent while playing alongside Vermette.
This year will be another feather in the cap of analytics writers who have preached the avoidance of big contracts for goaltenders. Neither Ben Bishop or Corey Crawford are considered “elite” and, as it turns out, many of those goalies like Henrik Lundqvist, Carey Price and Pekka Rinne have come up short of winning the Stanley Cup.
History suggests this should be no surprise. The likes of Chris Osgood, Marc-Andre Fleury and Antti Niemi have won Cups.
Recently, however, there have been quite a few top notch goalies landing in the Cup Final, including Tuukka Rask, Jonathan Quivk, Lundqvist and even Marty Brodeur – albeit at the end of his career.
This season’s matchup in goal is far from “one for the ages,” in fact, it is the weakest in net since the Blackhawks won with Niemi, beating Michael Leighton.
Statistically, Bishop has a .920 playoff save percentage while Crawford has a .919. Big shock, they’re close!
Both the Lightning and Blackhawks have had success on the power play during the postseason, with Tampa Bay scoring on 22.2% of their chances and Chicago hitting on 19.6%.
The Eastern Conference’s best club has been better on the PK at 81.2% vs. the Blackhawks’ 75.5%.
During the regular season, neither team was exceptional with the Lightning ranking 14th in power play and Chicago 20th. Their kills were basically even as well, with Tampa at 10th and Chicago 9th.
It seems like a recurring theme, yes, but these two clubs are as close as it gets on special teams – meaning there is no clear advantage.
Could wear be a factor?
Duncan Keith has handled his 32 minutes per game brilliantly, but the Blackhawks have also been healthy on the blueline. If one of the top four Chicago defenders is beat up or injured, they are not equipped to push a bottom pair player up to play huge minutes.
The Lightning are much more ready to push up a player like Braydon Coburn or Matt Carle to play a chunk of ice time without having a huge falloff.
While multiple overtimes haven’t gotten to Keith and the ‘Hawks yet, but two or three extra periods against the Lightning could finally break Chicago’s defense.
Neither team has been more worn down than the other when it comes to opponents in the playoffs. Each went to seven games in the previous series. The Lightning have faced harder competition in terms of the goal differential of opponents with +106 vs. +64 for Chicago – but that may be slightly deceiving because the Ducks were better than their differential.
How about home ice? Tampa Bay was the best team in the NHL at home this season with a 62.4% Goals For Percentage. Chicago wasn’t too far behind at 55.6%. However, both teams have shown they can win on the road, winning Game 7s on their opponent’s ice.
Tampa Bay in 7
The Lightning are deeper on defense and can battle blow for blow with the elite talent of the Hawks. As long as Ben Bishop doesn’t fall apart, Tampa will come out on top.