Stanley Cup Preview: Hawks-Lightning

Everyone loves comparisons. Doppelgängers, what-ifs, this guy vs. that guy during this era vs. that era. What kind of world would this be with them? That’s why the overwhelming storyline of this Stanley Cup matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning boils around the similarities between this Lightning team and the Blackhawks team from 2008-09. Both led by very young stars with impeccable speed and skill. Both lacking experience. That Blackhawks team was knocked down hard by the veteran-led Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Final before getting back up and winning the Cup the following season. The Lightning have yet to take that beating, and it remains to be seen whether this Blackhawks team will be the one to come through and deliver it to them.

Make no mistake: Tampa Bay is no joke. They are one of the most exciting teams in the NHL and play the game with such a high aesthetic quality, just like their counterpart. There is star power out the wazzu across both rosters, and all hockey fans are fully aware of the treat that they’re in for this series.

Chicago would probably not be standing here if it weren’t for Coach Quenneville’s decision to unite Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on the first line in the last two full games of the Western Conference Final against Anaheim, and it will be interesting to see whether he keeps it that way or not. Regardless, this is a team looking to capture its third Cup in six years and enter dynasty territory, and many pundits feel Anaheim may have had the best chance to stop them. But what does Tampa Bay bring to the table that Anaheim did not? Let’s dive in.

Offense

I’m not gonna lie – the Tampa Bay offense is frightening. They averaged the most goals per game during the regular season at 3.16, and they have one of, if not the, best players in the world in captain Steven Stamkos. After scoring 60 goals in his age-22 season during 2011-12, Stamkos dealt with two injury plagued seasons in a row before coming back strong and ranking second in goals scored behind Alex Ovechkin during his 2014-15 campaign. He struggled mightily in the early going this postseason but got back into his groove against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final, putting up four goals and three assists.

However, Stamkos isn’t actually the real story here for Tampa Bay. That honor goes to the Lightning’s super young and talented first line, otherwise known as the ‘The Triplets,’ which consists of 22-year-old Tyler Johnson, 21-year-old Nikita Kucherov and 24-year-old Ondrej Palat. Johnson, who is an incredible story in his own right after going undrafted due to his small stature (5’9″), leads all players in goals (12) and points (21) this postseason, with Kucherov trailing just behind him (nine goals, 19 points). The three of them have been an unstoppable force throughout the playoffs, leading all lines in cumulative scoring (55 points) and +/- (+17). Both Johnson and Kucherov also rank first and second in game-winning goals scored with four and three, respectively (Patrick Kane also has three). The trio has a perfect mix of speed and skill and is known for terrific passing (sound familiar?). These kids may be young, but they are well beyond their years. I’m excited to see which Hawks line Coach Quenneville chooses to match up with them.

Tampa Bay has the speed to keep up with Chicago, but they don’t really have the depth. Their top two lines have combined for 45 out of the team’s 55 postseason goals – 82% of the scoring. On the other hand, Chicago’s high-end talent at forward is friggin’ ridiculous. Between Jonathan Toews (18 points), Patrick Kane (20 points), Marian Hossa (13 points), Patrick Sharp (12 points), Brad Richards (11 points), Brandon Saad (8 points)… the list just doesn’t seem to end. As a team, the Hawks rank first by a mile in SAT For (remember, that’s team shots on goal + team missed shots + opponent blocked shots excluding empty net) at 986, a very strong indication of their puck possession superiority. On top of that, they are an impossible 32-0-0 this season (regular season/playoffs) when leading after the second period. That obviously has to do with more aspects of the game than just offense, but it’s a stat worth sharing.

On a side note, here’s my crazy stat of the day: Toews became the first player in Stanley Cup history with multi-goal games in Games 5 and 7 on the road. If the NHL had a re-draft tomorrow, he would be the first overall pick without question. Sleep on that.

Defense

Two words: Duncan Keith. The man is a freak. He leads the postseason with a +13, ranks second in assists (16) and, as far as I’m concerned, leads all players in ice time at an absurd 31:36 per game rate (Roman Josi of Nashville played 31:37 in six games, but that was one series – who’s counting?). Keith also has two game-winning goals thus far and owns the highest individual SAT (SAT For – SAT Against) at 89, making his case to become the first defenseman to win the Conn Smythe Trophy since Scott Niedermayer did it with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007 (Toews and Kane both probably have the edge over him, but with seven potential games yet to be played, you never know).

As you know by now, though, the buck doesn’t stop with Keith. Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya continue to make the most out of their ice time. Seabrook ranks first amongst defensemen in goals with six (!!) and fourth in points (10) and +/- (+6). Meanwhile, Hjalmarsson sports a +5 and is tied for third in blocked shots with Oduya at 43. All three rank in the top 18 in TOI per game, but that’s probably a testament to the Blackhawks’ serious lack of depth at the blue line.

Kimmo Timmonen, Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad have proven to be worthless. Literally, they have a combined zero points in 24 games played, and only Cumiskey averages over ten minutes of ice time per game. It’s no coincidence that Oduya owns a team worst -5 +/- rating, as he’s usually paired with either Cumiskey or Rundblad. This trio of defensemen is busted. Hot garbage. Rubbish. Bollocks. Get them out.

Tampa Bay’s defensive unit is similar to that of Chicago’s – an excellent top four but questionable depth. Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman form one of the strongest defensive lines in the NHL and have been sensational together this season. Stralman posted career highs in goals (9), assists (30) and points (39) and was pegged by ESPN’s Pierre Lebrun as Tampa Bay’s MVP thus far. Hedman, who ranks second amongst defensemen behind Duncan Keith with nine assists and a +5 rating this spring, is widely considered a top ten defenseman in the league; at 24 years old, he has his best years ahead of him. In addition, Jason Garrison, who led all defenseman in +/- this season (+27), heads up Tampa’s second defensive line. After that? Weak sauce.

All that said, Chicago’s blue line has way too much experience to not have the edge here. Expect the ice time to increase a bit more for each team’s top four this series in order to limit the exposure to the backends of their defensive units.

Goaltending

So, Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop is big. Like, really big. Like, the biggest goaltender to EVER play in the NHL big. At 6’7″ and 215 pounds, Bishop takes up an insane amount of net – not a bad trait to have when your main job is to form a wall in front of a net and ensure no puck gets past you. He legitimately looks like Hagrid (Harry Potter reference – I’m as cool as you thought) in pads, a uniform and a helmet. Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 11.49.54 PM

Anyways, being that large isn’t always great when you’re a goaltender. Yes, he fills a lot of space, with his shoulders covering most shots even in the butterfly, but Bishop doesn’t have the easiest time moving east to west and is at his best when his movements are controlled. With today’s NHL game being so fast, that’s a pretty glaring weakness to have.

That said, the highs have been extraordinarily high during this playoff run, as Bishop has made the history books a couple of times with his spectacular play. According to NHL.com, which features a fantastic, in-depth piece on Bishop, he became “the first goalie to backstop his team to the Cup Final with a road shutout in Game 7 of the conference finals, which Bishop did in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers. He also is the first goaltender with road shutouts in Games 5 and 7 of the same playoff series, and the first to win his first two Game 7 starts, a run that started in the Eastern Conference First Round against the Detroit Red Wings.” Not only that, but Bishop enters the Cup Final with a road shutout streak of 143 minutes and 45 seconds. For all your mathematicians out there, that’s two games and one+ period worth of shutouts (he has three shutouts overall this postseason), so… yeah. On the other hand, Bishop has also given up 15 goals (yes, 15 goals) in his past three home games. If that trend continues (don’t count on it), he stands no chance at leading his team to victory in Games 1 and 2.

Across the ice for Chicago stands Corey Crawford who, as you might agree, has been pretty mediocre throughout the playoffs. He gave up 21 goals in seven games against Anaheim (never less than two in any game) and has had some serious ups (Game 3 shutout against Minnesota; heroic 60 save effort in that triple overtime thriller in Game 2 against Anaheim) and some serious downs (first round against Nashville; three goals allowed in a 37 second span in Game 4 against Anaheim). Crawford ranks last out of seven goalies who have played 10 games or more this postseason with a 2.56 GAA. For comparison’s sake, Crawford posted an insane 1.84 GAA during Chicago’s 2013 Cup run, so it’s quite clear he hasn’t been the player he’s fully capable of being. Some would dismiss the 2015 Corey Crawford as the product of a great team, and a few minutes of convincing may sway me down that road as well. But this is a guy who’s been there, done that, and that experience may prove to be everything when it’s all said and done.

(For a great breakdown of Crawford’s strengths, weaknesses and trends, click here.)

Special Teams

Coming into the playoffs, these two teams had eerily similar special teams units. Chicago ranked 20th on the Power Play (PP) at 17.6% and 10th on the Penalty Kill (PK) at 83.4%; Tampa Bay ranked 14th on the PP at 18.8% and 9th on the PK at 83.7%. Since then, Tampa Bay’s PP unit has been on fire, annihilating New York at a 32% clip in their seven-game Eastern Conference Final, as well as Montreal at a 35% clip in their six-game Eastern Conference Semifinal. Chicago is still middle-of-the road on that front but is coming off a huge Game 7 in Anaheim, where Toews and Seabrook each scored one momentum-grabbing PP goal. Although a top PP unit of Stamkos-Johnson-Kucherov-Palat-Stralman is absolutely petrifying, I’ll still take my chances with Toews-Kane-Keith-Shaw-Sharp every time.

As for the PK, recall from my Western Conference Finals Preview that Anaheim had an unsustainable 31% success rate on the PP coming into the series. And right on cue was Chicago, bringing them back down to Earth and allowing only three PP goals in 16 tries. Chicago is now up to a 75% PK rate, which isn’t great but is steadily improving. Tampa Bay, who owned Montreal on the PK in the Round 2 (allowed only one PP goal out of 16, good for 93.8%), had a decent 70.1% PK rate against New York last round. Although it’s not too dramatic of a decrease, both teams seem to be trending opposite ways. Tampa Bay also has been shorthanded nearly 3.5 times per game this postseason, while Chicago has put themselves in better position, allowing themselves to be shorthanded less than three times per game. Slight edge goes to the Hawks.

Coaching

My Uncle Dan, a diehard Blackhawks fan (and avid follower of this blog) suggested I analyze the coaching matchups as well. Great idea. Problem is, I know nothing about Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper and, to be honest, I don’t really care to. Why? Because Joel Quenneville and his mustache have won two Stanley Cups, while Cooper has made two playoff appearances. ‘Nuff said.

Prediction

Experience, experience, experience. Hawks in 6.

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About Adam Levy

Adam Levy is a diehard sports fan and grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. After graduating with a Master's Degree from Indiana University, he began working at a consulting firm in the loop. In his spare time, he watches sports, re-watches Seinfeld episodes for the 23rd time, plays pickup basketball, competes in sports leagues during the summer, and overvalues all of the players on his fantasy teams. He is extremely passionate about his teams and will likely be found curled up in the fetal position on his bed, crying and cursing after significant losses. If you like his insight, feel free to comment, follow him on Twitter @ChiCityBS, or email him at aplevy1@gmail.com.

Posted on June 3, 2015, in Blackhawks and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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