The Tampa Bay Lightning host the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday night in Game 1 of the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals. That means it’s time to talk Stanley Cup Finals storylines.
Don’t the presence of a Florida team fool you, either. This year’s matchup is awesome.
Sure, we won’t be seeing any epic championship droughts come to an end, nor will the Finals feature the two biggest media markets in North America. However, for the first time since 2000 and just the second time in the expansion era—which is kind of mind-blowing—both Finals teams needed seven games to vanquish their opponents in the Conference Finals. And, even more amazingly, both teams won Game 7 of their respective Conference Finals on the road.
If that doesn’t make for an intriguing matchup, I don’t know what would.
Which team is going to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup at the end of all this? No idea. Sorry. What we can talk about, though, are the things that are going to be most interesting to watch as the series unfolds. So check out our list of the biggest Stanley Cup Finals storylines and get yourself pumped for the conclusion of the greatest competition in sports.
In most other sports, when experts start talking about "playoff experience," you can just tune them out. Because in most other sports, playoff experience is seriously overrated.
In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, though, experience really does makes a difference. And the Blackhawks have experience. Though still relatively young with an average age of just 28.9, the Hawks are battle-tested. Their core of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith has been together since 2009. Then you've got guys like Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Sharp, and 2004 Conn Smythe-winner Brad Richards. They've been down this road before, and they know how to crank up their game to a level most teams don’t even know exists when the playoffs roll around. That's why they're making their third Finals appearance in six years.
The Tampa Bay Lightning? Not so much. Their average age is 26.2 and, more importantly, only two players on the Lightning—Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman—were even on the team when they went to the East finals in 2011. This is an extremely talented squad, but one that's not nearly as familiar with this high-stakes terrain.
That said, the Blackhawks didn't have "experience" when they won the Cup in 2010. And it's not like the Lightning roster is not completely void of cagey veterans with playoff experience. GM Steve Yzerman picked up Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman before the start of the season, and both of them went to the Finals with the Rangers the Rangers last year. Then there are guys like Brenden Morrow, who's got 112 playoff games on his resume, and Valtteri Filppula, who won the Cup with the Wings in 2009.
9. How Much Does Experience Matter?
Almost every year there's at least one NHL graybeard in the Stanley Cup Finals who's been around forever but has never won the Cup. This year there are two.
For Chicago it’s 40-year-old Kimmo Timonen. The longtime Philadelphia Flyer was a fan-favorite on Broad Street, but fans didn't mind one bit that he joined the Blackhawks this year in search of a ring.
For Tampa Bay it's 36-year-old Brenden Morrow. After 13 seasons with the Dallas Stars, Morrow went to Pittsburgh and then St. Louis on a quest for a ring but had no luck. Now he's reached the Finals with the Lightning.
One of these guys will finally realize his lifelong dream and get to hoist hockey’s Holy Grail over his head. One of them will not. Because life is harsh like that.
8. The Veteran Quest
They say you can't win the Stanley Cup without impeccable goaltending. However, both the Blackhawks and the Lightning have had some issues in net this spring.
Chicago netminder Corey Crawford got yanked in favor of backup Scott Darling back in Round 1. He bounced back to help the Hawks sweep the Wild in Round 2, and ultimately the he stopped the Ducks just enough in Round 3 to get his team back to the Stanley Cup Finals. But his 2.56 GAA and .919 save percentage in the playoffs are pretty pedestrian.
Tampa Bay netminder Ben Bishop has also seen some ups and downs this postseason. On the one hand he leads all goalies with three shutouts this postseason, including two at Madison Square Garden in Games 5 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. On the other hand, in the other three of Bishop's last five games, he's given up 15 goals.
Will these ups and downs continue in the Stanley Cup Finals? Or will one or both of these goalies suddenly find consistency?
7. Goaltending Crapshoot
When it comes to the guys pulling all the strings and levers behind the scenes, you couldn't ask for a greater contrast.
Behind the Hawks' bench is Joel Quenneville, the most accomplished NHL coach of his generation. He's no. 3 on the list of regular season wins by a coach, just 32 behind Al Arbour. And of couse, he's already led Chicago to two championships in the last five years.
Behind the Bolts' bench is Jon Cooper. This may be just his second year in the NHL, but the Lightning and GM Steve Yzerman had been grooming him as their future head coach since 2010. Last year, his first in the NHL, the Lightning were swept in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens. However, this year Cooper and the Lightning got their revenge, ousting the Habs in the second round before taking down the heavily-favored Rangers in the Conference Finals.
Will Coach Q add to his Hall of Fame résumé with another Stanley Cup championship? Or will Cooper establish himself as one of the NHL's premier coaches by winning it all in just his second year? Stay tuned.
6. Quenneville vs. Cooper
Given the offensive firepower on both teams and the question marks between the pipes, the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals could very well turn into a shootout.
The Lightning have the playoffs' no. 1 point-producer in Tyler Johnson (12 goals, 9 assists). He centers "The Triplets" line featuring no. 4 Nikita Kucherov (nine goals, 10 assists) and no. 12 Ondrej Palat (seven goals, eight assists). And of course lets not forget about Steven Stamkos, who sits ninth in points with seven goals and ten assists.
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks have the playoffs' no. 2 scorer in Patrick Kane (10 goals, 10 assists), as well as Jonathan Toews (nine goals, nine assists) and Duncan Keith (two goals, 16 assists), who are tied for fifth. Then there's Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Brad Richards, and Brandon Saad. Plus even ourth-liner Andrew Shawhas four goals.
So like I said, if Ben Bishop and Corey Crawford aren't at the top of their games, this could be a pretty high-scoring series.
5. Offensive Firepower
One of the biggest questions always surrounding the Blackhawks is whether Joel Quenneville will play on the same line. It's no different this time around.
Coach Q prefers to spread his two most dangerous offensive weapons out, putting Toews on a line with Brandon Saad and Marian Hossa and Kane on a line two with Brad Richards and Bryan Bickell. This forces opposing coaches to pick their poison. Either they put their best defensive line out against Toews, leaving their second-best pair to stop Kane. Or they put their best defensive line out against Kane, leaving their second-best pair to stop Toews. Either way it's not ideal and puts opponents' depth to the test.
That said, when the Hawks have their backs against the wall, Coach Q tends to put Toews and Kane together to form one ultra-talented superline. And that can be pretty dangerous for opponents, too. Just ask the Ducks. Up 3-2 on Chicago in the Western Conference Finals, Quenneville put Toews and Kane together for the last two games, and they shredded Anaheim for three goals and seven points.
So what will Coach Q do in the Finals? Will he go for the jugular and put Toews and Kane together right out of the gate? If not, and the Lightning take a series lead, how long until Quenneville hits the Toews & Kane panic button? And will the Lightning be able to stop them?
4. Toews & Kane, or Toews and Kane?
You heard it here first. (Or maybe second. Or tenth.) If the Lightning beat the Blackhawks, Steve Yzerman is officially the best GM in hockey.
Last season Stevie Y risked team chemistry by leaving Lightning superstar Martin St. Louis off the Canadian Olympic roster. He had to know it could spark the end of the St. Louis era in Tampa, but he did it anyway in the name of bringing home the gold.
Sure enough, after the Olympics, St. Louis demanded for a trade, and Yzerman acquiesced, sending him to the Rangers for Ryan Callahan. At first it looked like the Rangers got the better haul, as they proceeded to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. But this year St. Louis' production tapered off, and it's the Lightning who are in the Finals with a roster mostly put together by Yzerman.
3. The Genius of Stevie Y
You want to know something about a hockey team? Look at it's captain.
The Blackhawks? They're led by Jonathan Toews. He's just 27 years old but has already won two Stanley Cups and two Olympic gold medals. If Toews captains the Blackhawks to a third Cup in six years, he will eclipse take over the title of "World's Greatest Hockey Player" from Sidney Crosby and pretty much punch his ticket to Hockey Hall of Fame.
The Lightning, meanwhile, are led by Steven Stamkos. He has most certainly established himself as the premier sniper of his generation, racking up an insane 276 career goals by the age of 25. However, he has yet to prove himself to be the kind of transcendent player who elevates his entire team.
Will Stamkos be able to find another gear, get the monkey off his back, and become a hockey immortal? Or will he lose to Captain Canada and, like Alex Ovechkin, struggle with that monkey his entire career?
2. Tale of Two Captains
The number one storyline of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs? The Blackhawks' legacy. Simply put, if they win the Cup again this year, they establish themselves as one of the greatest NHL dynasties of all time.
Now, I know what you might be thinking. Yes, the '80-'84 Islanders, '75-'79 Canadiens, '55-'60 Canadiens, and '83-'90 Oilers all won multiple cups in a row. The Blackhawks haven't even won Cups back-to-back.
Here's the rub, though. Those other dynasties did their thing (a) beforethe salary cap when (b) there were a lot fewer teams. If the Blackhawks win their third championship in six years with the salary cap, besting 29 other teams? Yeah, that achievement will fit right in with the greatest of all time.
1. Dynasty On the Line
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