WHAT WE LEARNED IN ROUND 3:
TAMPA BAY: The Lightning didn’t have the post-season experience or the regular season success that the New York Rangers boasted heading into the Eastern Conference final, yet it didn’t matter. Save for being blown out in Game 4 and 6, the Lightning won in about every conceivable fashion. They shutout the Rangers twice – including a 2-0 Game 7 victory – and scored 22 goals over seven games. Their high-power offense showed how lethal it can be and their defense showed that they can shut down even the best of scorers. The Lightning were a Staney Cup favorite for a reason and they’re firing on all cylinders.
CHICAGO: Resilient hasn’t been a word used to describe the Blackhawks in recent seasons mostly because, well, they haven’t needed to show any resiliency. Often dominant and explosive with a steady defense corps that has shutdown opposing offenses over the past few years, the Western Conference final looked as though it was going to slip through Chicago’s hands, but overtime goals by Marcus Kruger and Antoine Vermette helped the Blackhawks keep the series close before Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith helped Chicago take over in Game 6 and 7. Chicago’s ability to stay in games no matter the deficit is proving to be one of their greatest strengths this post-season.
MVP SO FAR:
TAMPA BAY: Before the post-season started, it would have been hard to bet against Steven Stamkos carrying the Lightning, but it’s Tyler Johnson who has done the heavy lifting. This past regular season, Johnson made a name for himself with 29 goals and 72 points in 77 games, but he’s somehow managed to up his game even further, scoring 12 goals and 21 points in 20 post-season games. Johnson, who plays with Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, has been remarkable for the Lightning and, should Tampa Bay win the Cup and Johnson have even a mediocre series, he’s going to be tough to beat for Conn Smythe honors.
CHICAGO: Jonathan Toews scored two goals in Game 7 of the Western Conference final. Patrick Kane has 10 goals and 20 points this post-season. But Duncan Keith has been a workhorse for the Blackhawks at both ends of the ice, logging more than 31 minutes per game and adding two goals and 18 points in 17 games. In the final two games of the third round against Anaheim, Keith had five assists and he found the score sheet in five of the seven games of the conference final. In 2009-10, Keith easily could have been the Conn Smythe winner with two goals, 17 points and more than 28 minutes per game over 22 playoff contests. Should Chicago beat Tampa Bay, the playoff MVP should be Keith’s to lose.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH:
TAMPA BAY: 1. In the last two rounds, Lightning netminder Ben Bishop has gotten the better of Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist, two of the most elite goaltenders in the world. However, much like his counterpart in Chicago Corey Crawford, Bishop will be looked at as possibly the weakest link on a sound Tampa Bay club. However, it’s Bishop who has posted two consecutive Game 7 shutouts and Bishop who has bounced back after bad games better than almost any other player on the team. Only once has he allowed more than three goals in back-to-back games all post-season, and his three shutouts are the best of any goaltender in these playoffs. 2. Only six players have more than one goal for the Lightning this post-season, and all of those six players played top-six minutes for Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals. That means the Lightning are coming into the Stanley Cup final with their bottom six producing a grand total of four goals in 20 games. The Blackhawks have 11 goals from their bottom six in three fewer games. Tampa Bay is going to need more production than that from the bottom of their lineup, especially considering that the Anaheim Ducks fell apart against Chicago in the Western Conference final once the Blackhawks were able to shut down Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. And if the stars from the Lightning merely cancel out the stars from the Blackhawks, then it’ll be up to the bottom-six to make the difference. 3. Steven Stamkos came on during the early part of the Eastern Conference final and scored goals in four straight games as the Lightning took a 3-2 series lead. During his four-game scoring stretch, Stamkos also registered seven points. He hasn’t been the dominant Stamkos many thought we would see this post-season, and it’s hard to tell whether or not that’s a good thing for the Blackhawks. If Stamkos heats up, a few two-goal games isn’t far out of the question.
CHICAGO: 1. As hard as it is to win the Stanley Cup without production from depth forwards, it may be even harder to win if you can’t rely on your depth defensemen to pick up the slack left by the club’s top two pairings. Chicago is in the unique position of relying heavily on four blueliners to carry the workload. It managed to work against the Anaheim Ducks, but it might be more difficult to do against a team like Tampa Bay that goes up and down the ice at breakneck speed. Duncan Keith is already logging monster minutes, as are Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya. Getting quality minutes out of Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad whenever they’re on the ice will be crucial. 2. The matchup game of Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville threw a wrench into the plans of the Anaheim Ducks as Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf were taken off the ice to stay away from the tight-checking of the Blackhawks whenever possible. Jonathan Toews did tremendous work against Ryan Kesler’s line and Marcus Kruger’s unit did their best to nullify Perry and Getzlaf. If Quenneville can utilize his roster in the right way to get the matchups he wants against the Lightning, it could help Chicago’s chances in the series. 3. Patrick Sharp, who has been a 30-goal scorer four times in the past eight seasons, has just four goals in the post-season. He also hasn’t scored since Game 2 of the second round. That’s a nine-game drought, something that hasn’t happened often in Sharp’s career. It’s not for lack of trying, either, as Sharp has peppered opposition netminders with 24 shots over the past nine outings, but hasn’t found the back of the net. While Toews, Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad and Marian Hossa are all finding the score sheet, Sharp isn’t, and getting him going would be a boon to the Blackhawks offense.
WHAT THE STATS SAY by Dominik Luszczyszyn:
TAMPA BAY: The scariest part of this Lightning team is that we really haven't seen the best they have to offer just yet. They were a strong puck possession team during the regular season, but that disappeared in the first two rounds as they relied mostly on the stellar play of Ben Bishop and a scorching hot powerplay to get by. They were much better against the Rangers, but there's still another gear to this team in terms of controlling play. That'll be even tougher to do against a Chicago team that was just as good as the Bolts during the regular season. Their shooting percentage is way down too, but that might have something to do with playing Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist in consecutive rounds. Unfortunately Corey Crawford is no slouch either.
CHICAGO: The Blackhawks have played some of the most exciting games during this post-season and that's generally because the pace they've played at is extremely high. Getting into a track meet with a team as offensively dynamic as the Lightning is likely not a recipe for success so they'll need to tighten up defensively in order to come out on top. With Crawford between the pipes that's less of a concern as he's carried his exceptional regular season performance into the post-season. Their penalty kill has been abysmal so far, but that should bounce back at the same time as Tampa Bay's comes back down to earth.
KEY MATCHUP by Dominik Luszczyszyn:
Tyler Johnson and Patrick Kane have been the best forwards on their respective teams and are among the Conn Smythe favorites so far. The two undersized Americans have been the go-to offensive threats on their team despite all the press going to their slightly more famous teammates. We know how great Kane is so it's interesting to see Johnson compared to him like this. Johnson scored at a much higher rate than Kane — though that gap has closed during this post-season — and had a bigger impact on his team's on-ice goals and shot attempts this season (with both elevating their game big time in the playoffs). That's not to say Johnson is the better player, but he clearly matches up well enough against an elite talent like Kane that it's not a stretch to put him in a similar category. Seeing him play against Kane might be just what Johnson needs to show just how special he is.
PREDICTION: Blackhawks in six. Before the season began, we chose the Chicago Blackhawks to defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning for the Stanley Cup and at the beginning of the playoffs, we chose the Lightning to be crowned champions. However, when we chose Tampa Bay to begin the post-season, there was uncertainty about Patrick Kane's return to the Chicago lineup. Miraculously, Kane was on the ice for the Blackhawks' first game of the post-season and, in typical Kane fashion, he's been a nightmare for the opposition's defense. Without Kane, we believed Chicago, even with all their talent, would struggle to get out of their division. With him, it's hard to bet against these Blackhawks. As such, they're our choice for Stanley Cup champion. Over the past two months, Chicago has won thanks to its scoring depth, skilled defensemen and ability to come back from seemingly any deficit. The Blackhawks have won two Stanley Cups in the past five seasons and were an overtime goal away from a chance at repeating as champions in 2013-14. With the talent level of both teams, the series will be close but, in the end, Chicago will emerge victorious.