Blackhawks

Five storylines to follow during Blackhawks-Lightning series

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Five storylines to follow during Blackhawks-Lightning series

Before the Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning square off for Game 1, let's take a look at five storylines to follow throughout the Stanley Cup Final:

1. Adjusting from physical Ducks to speedy Lightning
 
After playing a bruising Western Conference Final against the Anaheim Ducks, the Blackhawks are now shifting their focus to a Lightning-fast Tampa Bay team. That means short shifts and fresh legs at all times. The Lightning — the youngest out of all 16 playoff teams — come at you in waves, and force their opponents to keep up with their speed rather than dodge their hits. The Ducks tried wearing out the Blackhawks by using their physicality but fell short. It's a completely different hockey game this time around. While the Blackhawks are certainly capable of playing an up-tempo style, defending a team just as fast can be more taxing than anything.
 
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2. Can Lightning contain "nuclear option" of Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane?
 
Coach Joel Quenneville normally resorts to inserting Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on the same line during emergency situations, and trailing 3-2 in the Western Conference Final to the Ducks qualified as that. Since then, the two have exploded for a combined seven points (three goals, four assists) making it difficult for the Blackhawks head coach to separate them. So he won't, as indicated during Tuesday's morning skate. If that's the case, Lightning coach Jon Cooper has no other option but to keep its top two defensemen, Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, on the same pairing rather than utilize their minutes separately.
 
3. How will Blackhawks slow down "Triplets" line?
 
The intriguing part about Kane moving to the Blackhawks' first line means Marian Hossa, one of the NHL's best defensive forwards, will be bumped to the second unit. The line of Saad-Toews-Hossa has been brilliant at stifling the opponents' top players, and splitting them up could — for the Lightning — be looked at as an opportunity to exploit the defensive matchup. Tampa Bay's "Triplets" line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov has been nearly unstoppable this postseason. They've combined for 45 points (28 goals, 27 assists) in 20 playoff games so far, and continue to elevate their game as the lights shine brighter. Quenneville showed plenty of confidence in his fourth line last series, which did a solid job of holding down the Ducks' top line featuring Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. But the "Triplets" are a much quicker group, and this is where Hossa's two-way ability may be called upon. With the home team having the benefit of last line change, we'll get our first look as to how the Lightning will set the tone and play their matchups in Games 1 and 2.
 
4. Corey Crawford's experience vs. Ben Bishop's youth
 
Corey Crawford has bounced back from his first round debacle against Nashville as well as he could have, in large part because of his experience. He's won a Stanley Cup and has been in the league long enough to know what it takes to overcome certain types of adversity. Ben Bishop, on the other hand, is still a rookie in the postseason. Make no mistake, he's one of the biggest reasons the Lightning have made it this far, but Bishop is still searching for that consistency. The 6-foot-7 netminder earned a pair of impressive shutout wins, including Game 7, against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final, but on the contrary also allowed five goals in each of his three home games. Whether Bishop's inexperience will play a factor on the biggest stage will be something to keep an eye on, especially considering the tall challenge it was for Ducks goaltender Frederik Andersen — who cruised through the first two rounds — to handle such adversity in his first playoff run against the Blackhawks.
 
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5. Blue line depth will be tested
 
On paper, this year's Stanley Cup Final is about as even as it gets. Both teams have fire power and the ability to confidently roll any of its four forward lines. But both teams also have question marks on the back end of its defense. The Blackhawks rely heavily on their top four defensemen to play high quality minutes. It's a risky game to play as the postseason gets deeper and the opponents get tougher, especially against this Lightning team full of fresh legs. Tampa Bay divides up minutes on its blue line more evenly but there are still holes that the Blackhawks will surely look to take advantage of. It's the weakest link for both teams, and the one that hides its issue better than the other may be the team that's hoisting the Stanley Cup when it's all said and done.

A sneak peek at Cam Ward's new Blackhawks goalie mask

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USA TODAY

A sneak peek at Cam Ward's new Blackhawks goalie mask

It's a new year, new team for Cam Ward, who spent his first 13 NHL seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes before signing in Chicago on a one-year deal this summer. That means a newly-designed goalie mask is required to match up with his new team's colors, uniform and Blackhawks logo.

The designer of Ward's goalie masks Steve Nash, whose clients include 2017-18 Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck, two-time Stanley Cup champion Jonathan Quick and three-time 30-win netminder Martin Jones, shared a teaser on Twitter of Ward's new Blackhawks-themed mask for the upcoming season and it's sweet.

Check it out:

Why Ryan Hartman is betting on himself going into another contract year with Predators

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USA TODAY

Why Ryan Hartman is betting on himself going into another contract year with Predators

Ryan Hartman has been through this before. Back in December of 2012, he sustained a torn labrum in his right shoulder but played through it because the Plymouth Whalers were in the middle of a playoff run. He waited until the offseason to have it surgically repaired and was cleared for contact just in time for him to attend his first training camp with the Blackhawks in September of 2013.

This time was a little different though.

Hartman had been acquired by the Nashville Predators at the trade deadline in exchange for prospect Victor Ejdsell and a 2018 first- and fourth-round pick — a hefty price to pay — in hopes of serving as an additional spark plug for a Predators team looking to load up for a second consecutive Stanley Cup run.

So when Hartman was brushed by Nathan MacKinnon along the boards, lost his footing and fell on his left shoulder late in Game 4 of the first round against Colorado, he immediately knew something was up.

"It didn't feel great at all," said Hartman, who went straight to the dressing room and had team doctors pop it back into place. "I finished the game and was able to finish playoffs in like a modified sling, which sucked to play with, but it's playoffs. It's one of those things where there are many guys playing through injuries and I was one of them."

Hartman, who's been rehabbing and training in Chicago, received the green light to fully participate in hockey-related drills last Monday but was advised to delay his Chicago Pro Hockey League debut for one more week just to err on the side of caution. On Wednesday, he got back into a game-type setting and "felt good" after 50 minutes of action going up against former teammates Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane.

Now he can fully focus on this upcoming season and amp up his on-ice training to a level he couldn't get to while recovering from shoulder surgery with training camp a month away.

Hartman was a restricted free agent this summer and recently re-signed with the Predators on a one-year deal worth $875,000. Clearly, he's betting on himself to bounce back to his rookie year form when he scored 19 goals and cash out on a larger paycheck down the line, even though he had multiple longer-term offers from the Predators.

"Yeah we talked, [GM David Poile] wants me to be there, I want to be there, we have a good relationship," Hartman said. "Obviously, he gave up a lot of stuff to take me and sees me in the future of the team and I see myself there too. There's a lot of little things that go into negotiations — if it's money wise or length — and there was a various amount [of offers] that was thrown out on both sides. With no [arbitration] rights, the best thing for me and my team was to bet on myself, take the year and go from there next year."

With that comes the pressure of having to earn another contract for the second straight year, which is also risky considering he's coming off an injury that sidelined him all summer. But that's just the way he wants it.

"Either way I want to play my best, if I have a contract or not for long-term," Hartman said. "There is the benefit of having security with long-term deals, but you see guys, in history, that sign these deals and maybe have a year or two of, not really being complacent, but just feeling satisfied. I don't like the feeling of being satisfied. I'm not saying that's why I took that contract over another contract, but it was a good month and a half of debating one of the other three [offers]. My family and my agent, we chose this was the best for me and the team as well."

It's easy to see why the Predators are happy with this deal, too. Hartman is better suited to play in a bottom-six role on a really good team but has the ability to play in the top-six if needed. A strong season out of him and they'll be happy to reward him with a longer-term offer next summer. It also means he'd be making an impact while making less than $1 million, and every contending team needs those contributions from their depth players.

Pull up the Predators' CapFriendly page and you'll notice generous contract after generous contract for a majority of their players, particularly their core group. Look no further than Ryan Ellis, who signed an eight-year extension on Tuesday that carries a cap hit of $6.25 million. He certainly left money on the table but elected to take less to follow the lead of everyone else in Nashville because the ultimate goal is to keep the band together.

"You look at Sidney Crosby, one of the best players in the league, isn't even making close to the most money in the league and that's a reason why they've won two Cups," Hartman said. "They have space, maybe not necessarily as much as the Preds do, but Poile's good at that, he's good at stressing winning, the importance of winning, and keeping a team together. Sometimes when you go year to year losing four or five players every summer, it takes a toll having to introduce yourself to new guys all the time. Keeping the same group is really beneficial."

The Predators won't have to do much introducing next month. They're essentially rolling back the same team that arguably would've reached the Stanley Cup Final if they had gotten past the Winnipeg Jets. Hartman will be an important part of that group, only this time he'll be there from the start.

"That's what I'm really excited for," he said. "It's tough coming in [halfway through the season], it kind of feels like ... it's your first time getting called up with the new team. You're adjusting, you're trying not to make a mistake, trying to earn a spot, per se, earn the respect of your peers, so having that and going through a playoff run and a Game 7, if you go through a Game 7 with anybody, it's a bond. The stuff you fight through and you play for each other, to be able to go through a training camp and the ups and downs throughout the whole season, it's going to be exciting. I fell in love with the group for the short time I was there and I'm excited to be there at the start of training camp."