Get ready for a championship matchup on the ice that we all should have been waiting for. Trust us.
OK, so the National Hockey League brass – as well as many casual fans, especially those in the Big Apple – are still a little bummed that the New York Rangers didn’t complete an Eastern Conference Finals comeback to make the Stanley Cup Final, which would have set up a match-up of Original Six teams and teams from the first and third-biggest markets in the country. However, we actually might be treated to an even better matchup, and one hockey enthusiasts who have followed the league closely this season would have dreamed of, when the battle for Lord Stanley’s Cup begins on Wednesday.
When the puck drops at Amalie Arena, the Chicago Blackhawks’ immense talent and unquestioned pedigree will collide with the Tampa Bay Lightning’s blinding speed and near limitless perseverance that carried them in two of the three series they pulled out to make it this far. Chicago’s a brand name that’s loved by many – and hated my almost that many more. Tampa Bay is the supposed new blood, looking to revive a tradition of championship hockey in an area not normally known as a hotbed for hockey after winning the Stanley Cup 11 years ago.
So you might still need a little convincing that this series would be worth taking up the usually devoted to the NBA Finals, Major League Baseball, finishing spring cleaning or watching Game of Thrones. Luckily for you, no game during the Stanley Cup Final is scheduled to take place on June 7 or June 14, when the last two episodes of the fifth season of GoT will air. Score!
But if you need five more reasons/interesting storylines to check out the hockey, here they are…
1. A modern-day dynasty is in the works
With the increasing turnover of rosters from one season to the next due to the current salary cap structure, it’s almost impossible to imagine being able to witness the dynasties that we were blessed to see with the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders Islanders of the 1980s, or even the championship run the Red Wings had almost a couple of decades ago. So, while lowering our dynastic standards just a little, we should marvel at the current run the Blackhawks have made since the start of the decade, making their third Stanley Cup Final appearance in the last six seasons. Only five franchises since the modern age of the National Hockey League started in 1927 have won at least three championships in a six-season span, and only three of the Original Six franchises have achieved that feat: Montréal, Toronto and Detroit. (The aforementioned Oilers and Islanders are the two other teams that also pulled off the trick.)
Those teams, obviously, had star long-lasting power, and the same holds true for these Blackhawks, with the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, et al. Kane was able to remarkably come back for the first game of this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs after a collarbone injury suffered on Feb. 24 was initially thought to sideline him until the end of the Western Conference playoffs. All he’s done in the playoffs is score 10 goals to go along with 10 assists in the 17 games Chicago has played in the playoffs. His sometimes line mate Toews is also producing at a point-per-game rate as well (nine goals, nine assists).
But the player who might be the Conn Smythe frontrunner on the Blackhawks might be Keith, who is second in the playoffs (and leads all defenseman) with 16 assists and leads all skaters in plus/minus at +13. His three-assist, first-star performance in Game 6 of the conference finals against Anaheim with the team facing elimination might have been the best performance any player has had in a single game in the postseason.
Kane, Toews and Keith are three of seven players on the Blackhawks roster looking for their third Stanley Cup, and seeing them go for it and become the first team in the salary cap era to win three Stanley Cups is worth the couple of hours investing in primetime television.
2. You’ll get to watch the best line combination in the NHL
If you don’t know the names of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov, then watch the Stanley Cup Final, because that’s been the best line combination in hockey all season.
The line that head coach Jon Cooper called “the triplets” because of the synergy and understanding that they have on the ice together makes them appear as if they are actually triplets, ranked second (Kuckerov), third (Johnson) and fourth (Palat) in the regular season in plus/minus, and that play has carried over in the playoffs. The combination carried the Lightning to a come-from-behind series win over the Detroit Red Wings in the first round when superstar Steven Stamkos was notably absent from the scoresheet on a regular basis in the series.
Specifically, it’s been Johnson that has taken his game to a whole new level, leading the playoffs in goals (12) and total points (21). He scored two goals in three of the seven games against the Red Wings, twice doing so at Joe Louis Arena to help the team avoid a 3-1 deficit in Game 4 and stave off elimination in Game 6. After two more goals in the series win over the Montréal Canadiens in the second round, Johnson netted a hat trick in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden. He might have more success in this series given that the Blackhawks, due to a rash of injures on the blue line, might effectively be down to just four defenseman playing serious minutes in this series.
As of right now, it looks like a battle between Johnson and Chicago’s cadre of stars as to who will win the Conn Smythe trophy.
3. Tampa Bay’s head coach could have been your lawyer right now
Honestly, he really could have been. Less than two decades ago, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper was working on Wall Street. After that, he went to law school at a university in Michigan and then eventually passed the bar. He then became a public defender in Lansing, Mich., hoping to one day become an agent. Even at the turn of the century, Cooper, at the behest of a judge, coached that judge’s son’s high school hockey team.
Now, he’s in the National Hockey League…and in the Stanley Cup Final.
If you haven’t read the full story on Jon Cooper’s amazing journey into the National Hockey League, you really should, as it is a testament to what you can do if you have a dream, even if the starting point of that dream seems out of left field. Enemies and antagonists could develop as this series develops on the ice, but Cooper is one of the real good guys in a sport that has a lot of them. Winning the Stanley Cup would be the dream ending to what has been a professional journey that seems straight out of a fantasy world.
4. Corsi indicates there should be a whole lot of action…
Umm, what’s Corsi?
Well, I guess the better question to start is “Who’s Corsi?” Corsi is former Buffalo goaltending coach Jim Corsi, but Corsi is also the eponym given to a statistic created by statistician Tim Barnes, who created a way to quantify puck possession, specifically in how important puck possession is in the National Hockey League. In short, Corsi is the number of total shot attempts (shots on goal + shots blocked + shots missed). Comparing the number of shot attempts for and against a team is now widely accepted as a statistic that helps determine which teams are good at puck possession. So the better a team is in Corsi and Corsi percentage, the more likely that team will have better shots and better opportunities against the opponent on goal on a consistent basis.
If going by the regular season Corsi statistics, expect a lot of shots, and quite possibly a lot of goals in this series. Chicago ranked second in Corsi percentage, with the Lightning ranking fourth. There’s also an “opposites attract” aspect to this series as well, with the Blackhawks second in the NHL in goals allowed per game while the Lightning led the league in goals per game. Something’s got to give.
5. …unless the goaltenders have something to say about it.
One goalkeeper saw his then career-best season come to an end right before the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs due to injury. The other was pulled during the first game of this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, with his starting place in serious jeopardy just a couple of days after the ignominy of getting yanked.
Ben Bishop and Corey Crawford will be able to write the ultimate redemption story after this series is over. Bishop, who suffered a wrist injury in late April of last season and missed Tampa’s short run in the playoffs in 2014, bounced back to have an even better regular season in 2015, and was at his best during the playoffs. In the Eastern Conference Finals against the Rangers, Bishop only allowed four goals combined in four games played at Madison Square Garden, shutting out the Blueshirts in Game 5 and the deciding Game 7. Crawford came back into the lineup to replace an ineffective Scott Darling in Game 4 of the first round series against Nashville and has not looked back, finally reclaiming the form that he showed in helping the Blackhawks to the 2013 Stanley Cup.
ALOST’s Prediction: Honestly, how can you go against the Blackhawks? They have the history, they have the stars, they have the fans cheering incessantly during the National Anthem, etc. They’re just four games away from being the first post-salary cap NHL dynasty. But Tampa has its own stars, and coming off winning a series against the Presidents’ Trophy winners in the New York Rangers, something tells me that momentum doesn’t stop until the Stanley Cup is theirs. I believe this will be an epic series, and I hope I’m right. Give me the Bolts.
[Cover photo (Jon Cooper) courtesy of Mike Carlson/Getty Images]