It has taken nearly 23 years, but the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Chicago Blackhawks have come full circle. Wednesday night the two teams meet in Amalie Arena in the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals.
On October 7, 1992 the Lightning franchise took the ice for the first time against the defending Western Conference Champion Blackhawks. Instead of the Lightning’s classy home of today, this game was played at Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds.
First-year expansion teams are normally easy marks for most NHL teams, let alone one that participated in the Cup finals the previous season. But the Lightning, behind four goals from center Chris Kontos, routed the Blackhawks and Ed Belfour (the league’s best goalie), 7-3.
On that night, more than a few must have wondered what it would be like to play a team like Chicago for the Stanley Cup. Wednesday night, imagination becomes reality with the dropping of the puck at center ice.
Who is the favorite? The two teams split their two regular-season meetings with each winning on home ice. Las Vegas odds makers have installed Chicago as a slight favorite, despite the Lightning’s having the home ice advantage.
Experience is the main reason. Several of the current Blackhawks wear two championship rings from the 2010 and 2013 championships.
Only one player wears a Lightning ring from their 2004 championship season. Unfortunately that player, former Lightning center Brad Richards, plays for the Blackhawks. Richards won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Most Valuable Player of the 2004 playoffs.
On paper, the teams are even. Each has 7 players with at least 10 points (combined goals and assists).
Chicago’s three unquestioned superstars are center and captain Jonathan Toews (taves), winger Patrick Kane and defenseman Duncan Keith will be in the Hockey Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos and defenseman Victor Hedman fit the superstar definition and are complemented by a strong cast of quality players.
Lightning goalie Ben Bishop and Blackhawk goalie Corey Crawford have save percentages of .920 and .919, respectively. Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, a master at line manipulation, is the third winningest coach in NHL history. Lightning coach Jon Cooper has a few hundred fewer wins, but he has brought Tampa Bay to this point with his unique leadership style.
With two speedy teams so evenly matched, the little things will decide the champion. The power play and penalty killing units could play a major role.
Tampa Bay’s 16 power play goals, compared to Chicago’s 10, shows the Blackhawks would be best served by avoiding penalties. Throughout this year’s playoffs, Chicago has accumulated 124 penalty minutes while Tampa Bay has 209.
Statistics are nice, but this series will come down to intangibles in the form of mental toughness and heart. Chicago is well known for both.
Twice in this playoff season they have come back from 3-0 deficits in games on the road to force overtime. They were 1-1 in those games.
No one in playoff hockey history had ever allowed three goals within one minute, yet came back to win the game … until Chicago in the Western Conference Finals against Anaheim. They had to beat an outstanding Ducks team in Game 6 and then Game 7 on the road to make the finals. That takes heart and fortitude.
The Lightning have shown some guts of their own this year. After two unsettling home losses, they had to win on the road in Detroit just to force a Game 7 in the first round.
They finally closed out Montreal in the second round after letting a 3-0 lead shrink to 3-2. In the conference finals, they dropped two more home games to the New York Rangers, before prevailing on the road in Game 7. Tampa Bay showed the resolve to win three of the four games played at Madison Square Garden.
Yes, the Lightning maintained their composure throughout these playoffs to survive and advance. Chicago, with their experience, talent, and coaching, will not permit such an escape if Tampa Bay loses two home games in this series. One loss might be one too many.
The Blackhawks overcame the three-goal deficit to win Game 1 against Nashville and never trailed in the series. In the second round of a four-game sweep against Minnesota, they never trailed for a single second in any game! In the conference finals against Anaheim, they came back from one-game deficits three times to advance.
This should be a great series between evenly matched teams. If Chicago keeps Tampa Bay’s power play opportunities to a minimum, that will negate a clear Lightning advantage. Chicago’s penalty killing is average at best and their greatest weakness.
While our readers’ hearts clearly look for a Lightning win, the heart and experience of Chicago will have the Blackhawks hoisting their third Stanley Cup in five calendar years. We are looking at a dynasty.
Blackhawks in six.