USATSI_8574248_154158418_lowresThis is it. The Chicago Blackhawks are set to face the Tampa Bay Lightning for the Stanley Cup. This could be a more evenly matched series than many anticipate and the two teams certainly have a lot in common. The Blackhawks certainly have the experience edge, having won the Cup twice with this core group of players. Tampa has one Cup in its trophy case and will be looking to add a second.

This is also the first time in a decade that the Lightning have won three playoff rounds, which again highlights the experience edge Chicago has. They’ve been to the dance and are familiar with the feelings associated with it. Tampa? Not so much. That doesn’t necessarily have to account for much, but sometimes the intangibles can tilt the series.

The Lightning will give the Blackhawks a bit of a different challenge in that they’re a speedy, skilled team. Chicago fought hard against the Anaheim Ducks and will be coming off a physical seven game series, but they will have to adapt and shift gears against Tampa. The Lightning have a hot goalie in Ben Bishop and can handle the matchups well thanks to top-tier roster talent, so this should be an interesting tilt for the ultimate prize.

Offence

Tampa’s top six have scored 45 out of the team’s 55 goals in the post-season. The top line of Valtteri Filppula, Alex Killorn and Steven Stamkos has benefited greatly from a few changes. Coach Jon Cooper shifted Stamkos to the wing after seeing him struggle at the start of the playoffs and his play since the move has been terrific. Killorn, too, has been great. He has seven goals, two of them game-winners, and has been critical in generating offence.

The “Triplets” line is also worth attention if you’re the Chicago Blackhawks. Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov have been putting the puck in the net with surprising ease. Johnson leads Tampa with a dozen goals, while Kucherov has 19 points and Palat has 15. The line’s chemistry is hard to shake and they’ll be hungry for more.

The rest of the lineup up front is characteristically relied on to handle checking duties, although there may be a few surprises. Brian Boyle and Cedric Paquette will see tons of PK time and Brenden Morrow brings some veteran presence despite not having found the scoreboard. Ryan Callahan could also be a factor given the right circumstances.

As far as Chicago goes, offence has never been a problem. Consider the fact that Patrick Sharp sits on the third line. The third line. Together with Antoine Vermette and Teuvo Teravainen, Sharp has been lighting it up for a dozen points in 17 playoff games. A big part of his success has come from the play of Teravainen, who has proven himself a quality puck mover.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have been as advertised, while Brandon Saad helped Chicago take apart the Ducks over the course of the seven game series. Kane has 20 points in 17 games, while Toews is second on the club in scoring with 18 points. He downright exploded against Anaheim, pumping in five goals in the last four games in that series. And Saad has managed six goals so far for a total of eight points in 17 post-season games.

Brad Richards, Bryan Bickell and Marian Hossa have comprised the team’s second line. This should be an interesting series for Richards, who won the Conn Smythe as a member of the Lightning in 2004. He has a sturdy 11 points in 17 playoff games for Chicago. His experience has served the Blackhawks well.

Defence

Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman have been digging in as one of the top defensive pairings in the National Hockey League and that’s given Tampa the edge throughout these playoffs. Stralman is almost impossible to rattle and he’s balanced out the pairing, letting Hedman take some offensive chances. Hedman’s a plus-11, with 10 points and a tremendous knack for controlling the run of play.

Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn account for the second pairing for the Lightning. Garrison’s booming shot continues to be a factor, if for nothing else than to generate chances and rattle the cage, while Coburn unleashes a series physical presence. They’ve played defensive hockey a great deal in the series and should see a lot of time against Chicago’s top players.

The Blackhawks have Duncan Keith, who averages more than 31 minutes a game and is essentially a “freak.” What more do you need to know? He has 18 points in 17 games and will win the Conn Smythe if there’s any justice in the world. If Chicago wins the Stanley Cup, he will be one of the key reasons why. The two-time Norris Trophy winner has been playing some of his best hockey in this post-season and he’s a joy to watch if you’re a fan of the sport.

Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson have been balancing out some of the ice time, each averaging 26 minutes per game. With Michal Rozsival out of the picture, it’s been harder to gain consistency in terms of pairings but that doesn’t seem to have mattered much. Johnny Oduya has been cycled in and he averages about 25 minutes a game, while the likes of Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad round out the group.

Goaltending

Ben Bishop has been the man for Tampa, despite facing down an awful lot of criticism from everything to his glove hand to his rebound control. Like any other goaltender facing playoff pressure, he’s had his moments. But he’s also responded and is full of surprises. He’s 7-1 after a loss in the post-season, 12-8 overall with a 2.15 goals against average. Bishop is also the first NHL goalie to have shutouts in each of his first two Game Sevens.

Corey Crawford has rebounded for the Blackhawks after being benched in the first round. He’s 9-5 with a .919 save percentage and a 2.56 goals against average. He’s not as good statistically as Bishop, but he is very skilled when it comes to playing the long game and gives his team a chance to win every single night. Crawford also obviously has the experience edge, which will come in handy.

These are two well-coached, well-matched hockey teams and this should be an enjoyable series. Both teams have been in some long matchups against some tough opponents and have managed to come out on top. Both teams have quality defensive groups and can put the puck in the net. And the goaltending matchups are tough to call, too. This one could go the distance.

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