Here we are again, folks, another Stanley Cup Final featuring the Blackhawks.
It’s getting to be a habit, with the Blackhawks making their third trip here in the past six seasons. Awaiting them is the young, fast and talented Tampa Bay Lightning, who came back from a 3-2 series deficit against the Detroit Red Wings in the first round and beat the New York Rangers on enemy ice in the Eastern Conference Final.
The Lightning will be a challenge. But you know this story well, it’s about who has the edges in particular categories. So with Game 1 quickly approaching, let’s look at those edges.
Neither of these teams lacks firepower. The Blackhawks combined some of theirs in the later Western Conference games when Patrick Kane joined Jonathan Toews on the top line. Toews was stellar against the Anaheim Ducks, scoring four goals in his final three games against them. Brandon Saad has also lifted his game as the playoffs continued; he has six goals this postseason and his speed and scoring potential were problematic for the Ducks.
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As for the Lightning, Steven Stamkos obviously wasn’t hurting early in the postseason; he was just off to a slow start. He picked up in the Eastern Conference Final, during which he recorded four goals and three assists in seven games. Tyler Johnson has been the big surprise and he still leads the Lightning with 21 postseason points, including 12 goals. His linemates Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat aren’t hurting, either, with nine and seven goals, respectively. Have fun with both these teams’ forwards, goaltenders. EDGE: Even
There were concerns of how the top four defensemen would handle the extra minutes in Michal Rozsival’s absence, as well as the hits they took from the Ducks. From all appearances, they held up just fine. Duncan Keith seems to get better despite the plethora of minutes and Brent Seabrook is once again a clutch playoff performer, scoring six goals to compliment his work on the other side of the puck.
Tampa’s top pair of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman has been strong. Hedman has nine assists to go along with his steady defensive play. The Lightning used seven defensemen during the Eastern Conference Final with good results. Whether or not they take the same approach against the Blackhawks remains to be seen. Regardless, the visitor gets the nod. EDGE: Blackhawks
This is an interesting category, mainly because both goaltenders have had their triumphant and forgettable moments. Corey Crawford had an awful start to the postseason before regaining the net against the Minnesota Wild. His best game was arguably Game 2 against the Ducks, when he stopped 60 shots in a triple-overtime thriller. Tampa’s Ben Bishop has had his ups and downs, too. He allowed the Rangers five goals in three separate games. On the flip side, he shut out the Rangers in Games 5 and 7 at Madison Square Garden, so he can buckle down when need be. EDGE: Even
This one is closer than you think. Despite the Blackhawks’ power play struggling at times (please see one shot on five chances in Game 3 vs. Anaheim) and being the subject of Twitter punch lines (“Can’t we decline the penalty?”) it has come up big at necessary times. The Blackhawks, who are converting 19.6 of their postseason opportunities, got two power-play goals in Game 7, with Brent Seabrook’s score being the dagger. The Lightning has six more power-play goals than the Blackhawks this postseason (16 to 10) but they’ve also been on the job a lot more often (72 opportunities to 51). Close, for sure, but the Bolts may still have a more advantageous advantage. EDGE: Lightning
Remember when the Blackhawks took this category running away? Their kill was terrible against Nashville, giving up six goals to the Predators. We’ll give them credit for how they did against Anaheim. They held the Ducks’ power play, which clobbered Calgary for six goals, to just three, and one was on a 6-on-4 advantage at the end of Game 7. Tampa Bay’s penalty kill was great during the first two rounds of the playoffs, allowing just six goals to Detroit and Montreal combined. Then they allowed seven power-play goals to the Rangers. So hit and miss for both. EDGE: Even
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We trot this category out a lot but there is plenty to be said for having it at this time of year. Both teams are coming off great conference series showings, both needing a Game 7 to advance. Some have compared the Lightning to the Blackhawks of a few years ago, and you can certainly see that. Tampa is rebuilding nicely, with young, strong players as part of their core. Perhaps they handle the growing spotlight with ease; they’ve done well thus far. But on this stage ... EDGE: Blackhawks