The numbers are jarring, bordering on unfair. The Chicago Blackhawks come into this final with a roster that boasts 26 Stanley Cup rings. Most of the core, including Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith, each have two.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, by comparison, have one. That’s it. One ring, total, from an entire roster. And that one, belonging to Valtteri Filppula, is seven years old.
This Lightning team is young. And more importantly, the core is remarkably young. The captain, Steven Stamkos, is 25. The best defenseman, Victor Hedman, is 24. The top line features Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, both 24, along with Nikita Kucherov, who is 21. The starting goalie, Ben Bishop, is a comparatively ancient 28, but he’d never played a NHL playoff game until this season. The guy who has been given the task of shutting down Toews is Cedric Paquette, a 21-year-old rookie who’s so young that coach Jon Cooper didn’t even tell him about his assignment for fear of throwing him off his game.
Total Stanley Cup final games played between the group of them, heading into Wednesday’s Game 1: zero. And they’re facing a Blackhawks team making its third trip in six years. The Lightning have never been here before; the Blackhawks practically live here. In a series in which most of the matchups are too close to call, the experience factor is a laughably one-sided mismatch.
The question is, will any of it matter?
As fans, we love the idea that experience counts, and that having been there before confers some sort of advantage. It feeds into something we want to believe about how difficult this game’s journey to a championship really is. We drone on endlessly about the Stanley Cup being the hardest trophy to win in all of sports, and if that’s really true, then it seems like something that you shouldn’t be able to do on the first try. We want to see you fail, and learn from that, and then come back older and wiser, having finally figured out how to win.
However, the Stanley Cup memories we seem to love best all play against this theme. It’s Ray Bourque finally getting his hands on the Cup after two decades. It’s the lightbulb going off for Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings. It’s the 1983 Oilers, young and cocky, getting their butts kicked by the veteran Islanders, and only then realizing how much further they had to go.
And because we love the idea so much, we tend to forget about the stories that don’t fit the narrative. We forget about the teams that skip the years of hardship and near misses and jump straight to a championship. If anything, they’re the exceptions that prove the rule.
There’s a common-sense test that kicks in here, and the experience mythos doesn’t exactly pass with flying colors. After all, how much different can playing for the Stanley Cup really be? How much can a game that most of these guys have been playing their entire lives really change — how much more can there really be to learn, simply because it’s the Cup?
Is it possible that we’ve all just been telling ourselves a story? Could any of this possibly matter as much as we want it to?
Hockey fans have argued about the subject for decades, and attempts have been made to quantify it. One recent study suggested that experience may have mattered in the pre-cap era but doesn’t seem to anymore. But maybe it’s the sort of thing that you can’t really capture with the numbers. Maybe you really do have to have been there, under the bright lights and a few million eyes, and had the chance to feel it in your gut.
Lightning defenseman Matt Carle is one of the few Tampa Bay players who has been here before, back in 2010 with the Flyers. That would seem to give him license to buy into the idea. But when he was asked about it on Wednesday, he wouldn’t take the bait.
“It’s hockey, you know? It’s the same sized ice sheet. Same building we’ve always been playing in,” Carle said. Then he gestured at a locker room packed full of media. “This is the only thing that’s really different, is how many people are in here covering the series, and the people watching. That’s all that’s different.”
“Once the puck drops, we’re just trying to play a structured system and play the way we know how … Once that puck drops, it’s playing hockey and having fun.”
Stamkos hasn’t been here before, but his words echoed Carle’s when I asked him if anything about playing in the final would feel different.