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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Experience, experience, experience. Hawks in 6.
No team in NHL history had ever gone 24 consecutive games without losing in regulation… until this season. Only 20 times in NHL history, in 229 chances, no less, had a team come back from a 3-1 defecit to win a playoff series… until this season. The Chicago Blackhawks have now imprinted their name in the record books not once, but twice in the past two and a half months, yet the season as a whole doesn’t feel completely accomplished – not yet at least. There is still one minor milestone to check off on this memorable 2013 season – a second Stanley Cup in four years, and it’s officially in reach. The reigning champion Los Angeles Kings have yet to be dethroned, and as big of a challenge as the Red Wings posed these past two weeks, the Kings will make life for our Hawks that much more difficult. Get ready for one of the most exciting, gut-wrenching and emotional playoff series you will ever witness between two of the best teams in all of hockey. The Kings aren’t ready to give up the crown just yet, but the Blackhawks will do everything in their power to scalp them if need be.
It was only one short year ago that the Kings claimed the throne, for the first time ever, in purely dominant fashion. They set a NHL record by winning 10 consecutive games on the road in one playoff tournament and cruised to a 16-4 postseason record, something completely unheralded for an eighth seed. This year? They’re off to a 1-5 start on the road so far. If they’re going to have a chance to beat Chicago, they damn well better steal one in the Madhouse this weekend… and it all starts with something easier than done in these high-octane playoff series: scoring goals.
The Patrick Kane/Jonathan Toews/Marian Hossa ménage à trois has combined for a pedestrian eight goals in 12 playoff games thus far (five from Hossa), while the Dustin Brown/Jeff Carter/Mike Richards ménage has combined for 10 goals in 13 games. These two teams are loaded with star power, and the numbers above are more of a testament to the unique depth and underratedness of their respective rosters than a knock on any of their top players. Patrick Sharp may have disappeared throughout most of the Detroit series, but he came through when it mattered most by scoring a huge goal in Game 7 to get us off the schneid. Brian Bickell (goals in Games 5 and 6), Michael Frolik (penalty shot in Game 6) and Andrew Shaw (two goals in Game 5) all also played monstrous roles in helping Chicago complete the three-game closeout. And although Kane and Toews have struggled to put the puck through the net, they’ve contributed positively (for the most part) in other ways, if not through timely passing (15 combined assists in the postseason), then by just simply being out on the ice (both lead Chicago non-defensemen in TOI/G). You’ve gotta believe that they’ll pick it up soon. Like, real soon. They’re too good not to.
As for LA, they’re not nearly as deep as Chicago, but they have great experience and great leadership. Brown and Carter are fantastic – Brown being the captain of the ship and Carter being the team’s bona-fide goal scorer, as he finished fourth in the NHL in goals scored this season (26). Both Carter and Richards played on the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers team that lost to Chicago in the Stanley Cup, and both got totally shut down, combining for four total points and a -13 +/- rating in that series. Needless to say, those two will be out for blood come Saturday. Brown and fellow wing, Dustin Penner, will surely enter the series with similar mentalities, as they both enjoy physical styles of hockey and lead the team in hits (57 and 38, respectively).
Two other names to know: Anze Kopitar and potential x-factor Justin Williams. Kopitar led the Kings in points during the regular season with 42, and Williams, who scored just 11 goals all season, scored two big ones in Game 7 against San Jose.
Drew Doughty vs. Duncan Keith – that’s the main story-line here. After manning the blue line for Team Canada together in the 2010 Olympics, they come in as two of the premiere defensemen in the league. As expected, they lead their respective teams in ice time per game, something that will surely not change during the conference finals. Keith’s nine points ranks him fourth this postseason, and Doughty’s 24 blocked shots ranks him ninth, right behind LA’s own Rob Scuderi (31 BS) and right in front of Chicago’s Johnny Oduya (23 BS). As ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun put it, “…the game plan from each team will include targeting each star blueliner: pound them every time you have a chance on the forecheck, and wear them down as much as possible.” That’s how important these two are to their teams. If Brent Seabrook can just pick up where he left off after that overtime goal to clinch a trip to the conference finals, then advantage: Chicago.
Not much needs to be said here. If you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, then it’s time to move the f**k out, because the enigma that is Jonathan Quick has taken his giant wooden goalie stick and shoved it up the asses of the past six playoff opponents he has faced. We can talk all we want about offense, defense, special teams, etc., but when it comes to playing the Kings, none of that has seemed to matter whatsoever. Quick has stopped 362 of 382 shots this postseason for a .948 save percentage – somehow better than the .946 he posted last year en route to the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He’s inexplicably unstoppable at this time of the year (he ranked 34th in the regular season in save percentage) and, quite frankly, it’s downright scary. Expect the Hawks to crash the net every chance they get and put a big body directly in front of Quick whenever the puck is in the LA zone. It almost worked for San Jose; I’d like to think it’ll be more effective for Chicago.
Corey Crawford has been pretty unbelievable too, saving 316 out of 337 shots, good for a .938 save percentage and ranking second amongst full-time goaltenders. Fans tend to be hard on him at times because he may allow a soft goal here or there, but after the way he has played all season long and his performances in three elimination games (saved 25 of 26 shots in Game 5; 35 of 38 shots in Game 6; 26 of 27 in Game 7), it’s time for everyone to believe in him.
Nothing has changed since my last series preview: the Hawks’ power play sucks, and their penalty kill does not. To be fair, they did convert three power plays into goals during Games 5 and 6 against Detroit, but for the most part, it wasn’t pretty. There were times that the Hawks struggled to even get one shot on goal due to their inability to either win a face-off (something they struggled to do in Detroit’s zone for most of the series, not just on power plays) or set up their four corners, allowing Detroit to clear the puck whenever they got a stick on it. It was borderline embarrassing to watch at times, but as always, they came through when it mattered. That being said, their power play ranks last amongst the remaining teams (and 10th overall) at 16.2% (6-for-37), something that must be improved upon in order to win this upcoming series. LA’s PK unit has been very solid, killing 86.7% of all power plays this postseason (6-for-43) and ranking fifth amongst all playoff contenders. Given those numbers, plus a goaltender like Jonathan Quick camping out between the pipes, I don’t like our chances for improvement.
Thank god for the Chicago penalty kill, though – the deadliest in hockey. The PK unit has given up one – I repeat: ONE – shorthanded goal out of 41 tries in the playoffs thus far. That’s good for 97.6% which is, if you think about it, just absolutely ridiculous. Detroit was able to convert only one power play out of 24 last series. If that greatness can continue, then hopefully a phenomenal PK unit can offset a weak PP unit. Statistically, LA’s power play unit has been very similar to Detroit’s all season (19.9% to Detroit’s 18.4% during regular season). Because of that, I expect the PK greatness to, indeed, continue.
Chile please. Hawks in 7.
Four short years ago, the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings met for the 15th time ever in the NHL Playoffs. It was a battle between two very different teams: one with a vast amount of youth and inexperience for an organization that had made one playoff appearance in 10 years, and one with a stupid amount of experience and leadership for an organization that hadn’t missed the playoffs in 20 years (and counting). Jonathan Toews had just turned 21; Patrick Kane wasn’t even 21. The older, savvier Red Wings unsurprisingly took it to the baby Blackhawks in five games en route to their fourth Stanley Cup trophy in 11 years.
A lot has happened since then. The Bears made the playoffs once and failed to reach the Super Bowl; the Bulls made the Eastern Conference Finals once and have been plagued with devastating injuries ever since; the Cubs and Sox have absolutely sucked; but the Blackhawks have been a model of consistency, having won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years the very next season and set an incredible 24-game point record just two months ago. Tomorrow night, the Blackhawks and Red Wings will take the ice together for Game 1 of arguably the greatest rivalry in professional hockey. However, unless these two teams cross paths some day in the Stanley Cup, they will never play each other again in the postseason, as Detroit makes its move to the Eastern Conference starting next October. So with that, let’s dive right into the nitty-gritty of what’s sure to be a physical and emotional second round playoff series.
If you were to tell me that the Blackhawks could win their first round playoff series, with ease, without both Jonathan Toews AND Patrick Kane scoring a single goal, I probably would’ve… well, I probably would’ve agreed, albeit very hesitantly, but that’s exactly what happened against Minnesota. The Blackhawks just have so much depth at forward and so many options that it’s nearly impossible for anyone in the Western Conference to match up with them. From Patrick Sharp to Marian Hossa to Brandon Saad to Andrew Shaw to Bryan Bickell to Michael Frolik, the list almost never ends. There is so much firepower and so much talent that opposing teams can’t choose to pick their poison with anyone – every single player on this team contributes. Sharp, Hossa and Bickell combined for 11 goals against the Wild, and Shaw, Frolik and Marcus Kruger all chipped in a goal. It’s no coincidence that Chicago swept the four game season series against Detroit this season – they’re simply over-matched. Hopefully, that success will continue starting tomorrow. And oh, by the way, some center named Dave Bolland, who happened to score eight goals and had 16 points during the 2010 run to the Stanley Cup, will be back from an injury and ready to go for Game 1.
The Bash Brother duo of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have displayed nothing but consistency over the past decade for Detroit. They may be older (34 and 32, respectively), and they may be slower, but one thing’s for damn sure: they know how to win. Neither one has ever missed the playoffs (both have been with Detroit for their entire careers), and they’ve only lost in the first round once in the last seven years. This season was obviously no different. Datsyuk and Zetterberg dominated the Ducks to the tune of 15 combined points and stepped up like the leaders that they are when it mattered most: Datysuk racked up three points in Game 6, and Zetterberg combined for three goals and five points in elimination Games 6 and 7. These two, along with the younger Justin Abdelkader, will man the first line. Look for veterans Johan Franzen, Valtteri Fillpula and Daniel Cleary to improve upon their combined +/- rating of -7 last series, as their performances will be crucial for a Detroit team that lacks some serious front-line depth in comparison to Chicago.
It’s no secret that the Blackhawks rely on talent, instincts and perfection, as opposed to physicality and strength, like the Boston Bruins, in order to win games. Their blue line is anchored by iron man and former James Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, who led all Chicago defensemen with five points (a goal and four assists) and a +5 +/- rating against Minnesota in round one. Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson bring an abundance of recent playoff experience to the table and a Stanley Cup championship under their belts as well. 34-year-old Michal Roszival and 31-year-old Johnny Oduya have been playing sound, physical hockey, as Roszival leads the team with 11 hits (Oduya has five), while Oduya leads with 11 blocked shots (trailed by Roszival’s 10) thus far in the postseason. Each one of these players, as well as Nick Leddy, at least bring something positive to the table, which is why this unit ranks second in the playoffs in shots allowed per game (27.8) and first in goals allowed per game (1.40). The longer they keep this up, the deeper their playoff run probably goes.
The Red Wings may have played eight defensemen in round one, but only one of them is truly worth noting: Niklas Kronwall. He, like Datsyuk and Zetterberg, has been with Detroit his whole career and is the sole leader of their defensive unit. During the regular season, he led Detroit defensemen in blocked shots with 83 and ranked sixth amongst NHL defensemen in points with 29 . In seven games against Anaheim, he led the Wings roster in minutes per game (25:20 – nearly four minutes ahead of their next best defenseman, Jonathan Ericsson) and their defensive unit in hits (16) and blocked shots (15). The keys for Detroit’s defense will be to limit mistakes and turnovers in their zone (this proved costly against Anaheim), obstruct shooting lanes and not allow Chicago to get behind them in transition. They simply have to play flawless hockey.
Ray Emery should be healthy enough to suit up for Game 1, and that should be a huge plus. But Corey Crawford has been nothing short of spectacular so far this postseason. His .950 save percentage and 1.32 goals against average both rank first for full-time playoff goalies (Kevin Poulin and Tomas Vokoun only played two games each). He has proven to be cool, calm and collected under pressure and has improved upon his ability to control rebounds.
Jimmy Howard hasn’t been nearly as good in net for the Red Wings as Crawford, but that doesn’t mean he can’t get hot. He’s coming off a fantastic performance in Game 7 against Anaheim, where he saved 31 of 33 shots in front of a hostile Ducks crowd. Nevertheless, he has yet to develop any consistency and gain a win against Chicago this season. Until that changes, I’ll remain skeptical.
Let’s just cut to the chase: the Hawks have the best penalty kill in hockey right now. Minnesota had 17 power plays against them last series. How many power play goals did they score? Not a one. Detroit’s power play unit is considered middle of the pack, but they did rank fourth in the first round in power play percentage at 24% (6-for-25). Regardless, a good penalty kill should make fans feel comfortable; a great penalty kill, like Chicago’s, should make fans feel invincible.
On the other had, the Hawks’ power play unit has been mediocre all season long, and that didn’t change against Minnesota. They ranked 19th in the regular season at 16.6% and 10th in the postseason at 15.4% (2-for-13). The good news, though, is that Detroit’s penalty kill is mediocre as well, if not worse. It fared relatively well in the regular season (81.7%), but it gave up seven power play goals against Anaheim in 25 chances (72%), good for 14th out of 16 playoff teams. The Hawks’ power play certainly isn’t anything to write home about, but given the strength of their penalty kill, I’ll give them the edge in the special teams department.
Hawks in 5.