Blackhawks

Blackhawks-Lightning: Who has edge in the Stanley Cup Final?

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Blackhawks-Lightning: Who has edge in the Stanley Cup Final?

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.

FORWARDS

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.

[MORE HAWKS: Stanley Cup Final feeling never gets old for Blackhawks]

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

DEFENSEMEN

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.

[MORE HAWKS: Jonathan Toews continues to lead by example for Blackhawks]

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

GOALTENDERS

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

[MORE HAWKS: Lightning ticket policy attempting to block Blackhawks fans out]

POWER PLAY

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

PENALTY KILL

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

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Get your Western Conference Champs gear here]

EXPERIENCE

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 

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Is Crawford ready to go?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Is Crawford ready to go?

Jimmy Greenfield, Connor McKnight, and Matt Spiegel join Kap on the panel to discuss Corey Crawford back on the ice for the first time in 10 months. The Bears have good news when it comes to Khalil Mack, who injured his ankle against the Dolphins.

Plus, Fred Hoiberg announces that Jabari Parker is coming off the bench for the season opener.

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below:

Niklas Hjalmarsson 'wasn't happy' about trade, but remembers time with Blackhawks fondly

Niklas Hjalmarsson 'wasn't happy' about trade, but remembers time with Blackhawks fondly

Apparently time doesn’t heal all wounds. 

Nearly a year and a half since being traded to the Coyotes, Niklas Hjalmarsson will return to the United Center ice on Thursday playing for the visiting team.  

“It’s going to be strange coming in as the away team and being in the other locker room,” said Hjalmarsson on Wednesday. “I bet it’s going to be a lot of emotions and mixed feelings.” 

This is also the first time Hjalmarsson has been back to the city of Chicago since he was traded, a city he called his “second home.” A home where he spent parts of 10 seasons, and never really planned on leaving.

“I wasn’t happy, to be honest with you,” said Hjalmarsson of the trade to Arizona. “I was shocked. It took me a couple days to actually realize I wasn’t going to play for the Hawks anymore.”

Including the playoffs, Hjalmarsson played 751 games in the Indian head sweater. Despite that and the team’s three Stanley Cup victories, the Blackhawks shipped him off to Arizona for Connor Murphy and Laurent Dauphin in June of 2017.

“You kind of let it go after a while,” he said. “Now I’m just hoping all the success for the guys over here too.”

Hjalmarsson was known for his toughness, repeatedly blocking shot after shot, giving up his body, while never missing a shift. He credits his long-time teammates — Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook — for a lot of his success and identity on the blue line.

“I couldn’t have had better role models coming into a team,” he said. “I’m very thankful to have played on the same team as those guys and created a lot of success together. We’re always going to be connected with the Cups that we’ve had.”

The third championship won by that defense-trio was on United Center ice against the Lightning in 2015, but that isn’t the memory that stands out most for Hjalmarsson.

“The first Cup is always going to be pretty special,” said the 31-year old. “Even just going to the conference final (in 2009), even when we lost against Detroit that year, the year before was great memories too. The first time for me going into the playoffs and playing deep.”

The tables have turned now for both Hjalmarsson and the Blackhawks. 

The Coyotes have yet to score an even-strength goal this season, while the Blackhawks have claimed eight of a possible 10 points thus far through five games and expect to have their starting goaltender back between the pipes. 

But you won’t hear any ill-will from Hjalmarsson, he’s still rooting for the Hawks.

“I always think that Chicago deserves to have a team in the playoffs,” he said. “It’s not that I wish them not to do well. It’s the total opposite. I want them to have continued success.”