It’s finally down to two teams in the National Hockey League playoffs, as the Chicago Blackhawks meet the Tampa Bay Lightning. Both teams are recent Stanley Cup winners, with the Blackhawks winning in 2010—after sweeping the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference finals—as well as 2013, while the Lightning hoisted the trophy back in 2004.
Both teams just won Game Seven in their respective conference finals on the road, demonstrating the kind of mental toughness required to emerge victorious with Lord Stanley’s Cup in hand. Tampa Bay knocked off the New York Rangers Friday night, and Chicago eliminated the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday evening (thankfully, for Sharks fans!).
What can we expect now in the Cup finals? More of the same, really. While it could hold form and go to a seventh game—which the Lightning would host, based on their regular-season record—look for the Blackhawks to continue to make amends for last season when they lost Game Seven of the conference finals at home to eventual champion Los Angeles. Chicago won’t rest until they win the Cup again.
Tampa Bay has had the harder pathway, overall, to the Finals. It took them 20 games to get here (12-8), while the Blackhawks only needed 17 games (12-5). Do not underestimate the significance of those extra games, even if Chicago did have some long overtime games against Anaheim in the last series.
Goaltender Ben Bishop has been strong for the Lightning: He has posted a very good 2.15 goals-against average in those 20 games, to go with three shutouts and a .920 save percentage. That doesn’t mean the Blackhawks don’t have their own strengths in net, however. Corey Crawford went all seven games against Anaheim, and overall, he is 9-4 with a 2.56 GAA this postseason. The Chicago netminder also was huge in two long games against the Ducks: a triple-overtime win in Game Two on the road and a double-overtime win in Game Four at home.
Backup Scott Darling (3-1, 2.22) also can play for the Blackhawks if needed. He came through huge in the first round when needed, posting his own double- and triple-overtime wins in that series against Nashville. Needless to say, you don’t want to get into a deep scrum on the ice against Chicago: The Blackhawks are 4-1 in overtime this postseason, and the deeper the game goes, the less likely they will lose. But the Lightning are 3-0 themselves in overtime this playoff year.
As expected for the conference champions, the two squads have the top scorers in the playoffs: Tampa Bay center Tyler Johnson (21 points), Chicago right wing Patrick Kane (20 points), Tampa Bay right wing Nikita Kucherov (19 points), Chicago center Jonathan Toews (18 points), Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith (18 points) and Tampa Bay center Steven Stamkos (17 points). The two teams can score.
The numbers here say Tampa Bay should emerge in seven games to claim their second Cup title, but the instinct says to not go against the Blackhawks and their quest for greatness (i.e., three championships in six seasons). So watch Chicago steal a game in double overtime on road ice and then clinch the Cup in Game Six at home on June 15.