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.