Stanley Cup Final Preview; Lightning to Win

Posted: 06/03/2015 by levcohen in Hockey

You know what really annoys me? When, even in the Stanley Cup Final, people make a pick and use “experience” as their main rationale. I just don’t think it’s valid reasoning at all. As Steven Stamkos said (I’m paraphrasing), if you’ve made it this far, you have the experience to challenge for the Cup. Sure, the experience might pay off in earlier rounds, but you’d be out of your mind to take the Blackhawks over the Lightning simply because they are the more experienced team. If the Blackhawks win the series, it’ll be because they were the better team or got lucky, not because they had more experience. And if the Lightning play poorly, it’s not because of inexperience but rather because they aren’t as good as the Blackhawks or just have a few off games.

Ok, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk hockey. I just called the majority of old-time fans out of their minds, but in picking the Lightning, I might myself be out of my mind. The Blackhawks are favored in Vegas despite starting the series on the road. All of the experts are picking them, and most of the public like them in this series, too. And it makes sense. I think the biggest thing that’s working in Chicago’s favor is Tampa’s lack of forward depth. The Blackhawks have a big hole, their third defense pairing, but the Lightning don’t really have the depth to exploit the hole. Tampa’s top two lines have been fantastic in the playoffs, with the Triplets line or Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov scoring a combined 28 goals and the Stamkos line adding 17. But in 20 games, nobody else has more than a single goal. Now, if the top two lines keep scoring like they have been scoring, it won’t matter. The problem is that the Blackhawks will be able to counter the two with four great defensemen (Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Johnny Oduya) and both the Toews line and the Kruger line, each of whom is stellar defensively. It’s more likely than not that the Lightning will need more scoring from depth players, namely guys like Ryan Callahan and Cedric Paquette.

Meanwhile, the Blackhawks probably aren’t worried about getting more production from lesser offensive players. Guys like Antoine Vermette, Teuvo Teravainen, and Andrew Shaw, players who don’t play that often, have scored huge goals these playoffs. And the blue-chippers, guys like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Marion Hossa, have certainly produced as well. Kane has 10 goals and 20 points through 17 games, Toews has 18 very important points, with goals exactly when the team has needed him most, Keith (18 points, 31:36 average time on ice, +13)¬† is the Conn Smythe favorite, and Hossa has 13 points. Offensively, they probably have the better team top to bottom.

The Lightning, though, have a pretty good defense, too. Victor Hedman is a freak of nature, a 6’6″ defenseman who is fast. But everyone probably knows Hedman by now. The guy I want to spotlight is the defenseman who plays with him, Anton Stralman. Stralman is a brilliant puck-possessor and mover, and he often starts breaks with sharp passes from his zone to players about to enter the offensive zone. When he’s been on the ice this season, the Lightning have had 56.3% possession. Compared to the team’s normal stats, no defenseman did better. The Stralman-Hedman pair is terrific, and they are a combined +13 in the playoffs. And the team’s other defensemen are pretty solid too, a good sign given that defense depth has long been Tampa’s Achilles’ heel. Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn are both former top pair defensemen (for the Flyers), and Jason Garrison is also pretty solid.

If either of these teams have a real weakness, it’s between the pipes. Both Corey Crawford and Ben Bishop have had some really bad moments this postseason, but both manage to respond well after bad games. But Bishop has the stronger likelihood of deciding this series one way or the other. He’s allowed either zero or five goals in each of his last five games, while Crawford has given up either two or three in six of his last eight. And while they have posted nearly identical stats over the last few seasons, Bishop, the bigger and probably more skilled goalie, has had more stretches of dominance.

Since I’m picking the underdog, I feel obligated to list a few key reasons I’m doing it (besides the fact that I love picking underdogs). The first is that I picked the Lightning before the playoffs started. I know it’s not a good reason, but still. More importantly, I think Bishop will have more good games than bad ones, as he always seems to step up when needed (see game seven vs. Detroit, game seven vs. New York). I think one of the top two lines will keep producing, with guys like Callahan picking up the slack for whoever is matched up against Toews. If they need a jolt, they can also call up top prospect Jonathan Drouin, the 20 year-old who could well be the next big scorer in the NHL but has played poorly in just three playoff games. Tampa Bay has also been the better of the two teams on both the power play and the penalty kill, so they get the special teams edge, too. The Blackhawks are a great team, and they’ll have plenty of great moments in this series, but I expect Stamkos and the Lightning to triumph over Toews and the Blackhawks in a tense game seven. Before I end this, I’d just like to caution the people who are saying that since both teams are so fast, this is going to be an up-and-down series with a lot of goals. I don’t think that will be the case, because the Blackhawks are defensively-oriented and because in Tampa’s three elimination games this postseason they gave up just two total goals. I expect the games to be close, but not wide open.

Lightning in 7

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