The Stanley Cup final gets started tonight in Tampa, as the young Lightning face the seasoned Blackhawks. It’s a fantastic matchup, one featuring plenty of star power and two teams that have at times looked both vulnerable and invincible over the past few weeks.
The Blackhawks have won two Cups since 2010; the Lightning look poised to win a few more down the road. But it’s this year’s that is up for grabs, so let’s see if we can figure out who’s going to win this thing by breaking down all the usual categories — plus a few more.
Lightning: Tampa Bay is stacked up front, so much so that franchise player Steven Stamkos has somehow wound up as an afterthought for much of the playoffs. After a slow start to the postseason, Stamkos heated up against the Rangers with goals in four straight games, and linemates Alex Killorn and Valtteri Filppula have come along for the ride. That essentially gives the Lightning two no. 1 lines, since the “Triplets” trio of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov shows no signs of slowing down.
If there’s a concern, it’s that the top six is basically doing all the team’s scoring. Filppula has three goals, while the other five each have at least seven; by comparison, nobody else on the team has more than one. That includes guys like Ryan Callahan and Cedric Paquette, who’ve been largely invisible on the offensive side. If you’re a Lightning fan, you could look at that as a good thing — the bottom six are playing other roles, and if they ever did start chipping in, the offense would basically be unstoppable. But with a matchup coming for one of those top lines against Jonathan Toews and friends, there has to be at least a little bit of concern with how top-heavy the Lightning lines are.
Blackhawks: The Blackhawks feature just as much star power as the Lightning, and maybe more. Toews and Patrick Kane get most of the attention, especially when they’re playing together (as they did in the late stages of the Anaheim series). Toews is that rare player who can be dominant at both ends, and Kane’s knack for scoring big goals is becoming legendary. Mix in a young star in Brandon Saad and a pair of old ones in Marian Hossa and ex-Lightning Brad Richards, and you’ve got enough firepower in the top six to push a guy like Patrick Sharp down to the third line.
The edge: There aren’t many teams that can match the Lightning’s top six, but the Hawks are one of them. And Chicago’s better depth and more balanced scoring gives it an edge here.
Lightning: Victor Hedman is the kind of guy you might not fully appreciate until you see him play live. You watch a Lightning shift and find yourself thinking Who’s that huge guy back there? and you realize it’s Hedman (he’s listed at 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds). Then a few seconds later you think Who’s that fast guy up there? and you realize it’s Hedman again. He’s smart, skilled, and just 24 years old; it’s scary to think about what he could be in another year or two.
The rest of the blue line is solid, which is an upgrade from the unit of recent years that was often a weak link. The other key guy to watch is Anton Stralman, a longtime darling of the analytics crowd who finally seems to be breaking through to some mainstream attention. He’s not big, but he’s a skilled puck-mover and a possession monster who doesn’t make many mistakes.
Blackhawks: Duncan Keith is getting all the attention these days, and rightfully so. He’s been ridiculously good at both ends of the rink, and would probably win the Conn Smythe if voting were held today. He plays huge minutes, and at some point you’d assume that fatigue would have to become a factor, but he’s such a physical freak that maybe he really can play 30 minutes a game (with gusts to 40 in overtime) without wearing down, at least for up to seven more games.
Beyond Keith, the rest of the Hawks’ top four is excellent, with Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook, and Johnny Oduya playing big roles. Things then get dodgy, though, because the fifth and sixth slots have been a mess. The Hawks have been using some combination of David Rundblad, Kimmo Timonen, and Kyle Cumiskey and don’t seem to trust any of them, limiting their minutes and sheltering them as much as possible. That’s tough to do, especially on the road, and it tends to catch up with teams. It hasn’t really yet for the Hawks, but it would make life a lot easier if at least one of those guys could up his game enough to take some of the heat off the big four.
The edge: We’ll give the edge here to the Blackhawks, at least for as long as Keith can keep up the Superman routine, but Hedman and Stralman mean it’s not as big a gap as you might think.