Blackhawks vs. Lightning: Expert Predictions for 2015 Stanley Cup Final
Every Stanley Cup Final offers its own drama; each is great in its own way. But even by the standards of previous years, the 2015 showdown between the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning is something special.
Chicago is one win away from being a legitimate dynasty. 2015 marks the club's fifth deep playoff run in the span of just seven years and offers an opportunity for the 'Hawks to claim their third Cup in that span. One more playoff series win would make them the first NHL team to manage three championships in such a short span of time since the Red Wings a decade ago.
The Lightning, meanwhile, are in much the same position as Chicago was in 2009. Careful management, along with some high draft picks, has produced a young team with exceptional quality in all positions. Tampa Bay has the chance to be the NHL's next great team; the trick now will be knocking off the league's current standard-bearers.
How does the series shake out? To answer that and other key questions, Bleacher Report has assembled an expert panel—consisting of columnists Adrian Dater, Dave Lozo, Steve Macfarlane and Jonathan Willis, and senior editor Jake Leonard—with each member offering predictions and explanations for what we're about to witness.
Adrian Dater, National Columnist
Who wins? In how many games? I wanted to be the contrarian here and say the Lightning could vanquish their fourth straight Original Six team in these playoffs. But, no, can't do it. Chicago's experience has to be a major factor on its side, and no team can match the Blackhawks' core of star players. Chicago will win in six games.
The Conn Smythe winner will be… Duncan Keith has not only been amazing at the defensive end and leads all players in ice time these playoffs, but he also has 18 points in 17 games. If he keeps playing as he has for one more series, and as great as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have been of late, Keith would deserve the award more.
The series' biggest X-factor will be… Brandon Saad. Whether Toews and Kane play on the same line together or not, Saad figures to be the same handful for the Lightning that he's been to other opponents this postseason. He's easy to overlook on such a star-studded roster, but make no mistake: Opposing goalies and coaches know who he is.
What will we remember most about this Stanley Cup Final? We'll most remember how this Chicago team was as close as we got in modern hockey history to a dynasty. No, the Blackhawks never won four straight Stanley Cups (not yet anyway), but three in six years is pretty dynastic in a cap era with so much league parity.
Whose legacy will be impacted the most? If Toews wins his third Cup, not to mention the two Olympic gold medals he already has, he cements his status as hockey's biggest winner of modern times. And to think, he's still only 27.
Jake Leonard, Senior Editor
Who wins? In how many games? Blackhawks in six. You have to respect the strides the Lightning have taken this season, becoming the clear class of the East. But winning close series against the likes of the Red Wings, Canadiens and Rangers doesn't do anything to establish that they're on the same level as the West elite. The West champion has won the Cup final three straight years and hasn't needed more than six games to do it. This year will be more of the same.
The Conn Smythe winner will be… Duncan Keith. He's been the most important defenseman for this Chicago core's previous two Cup wins, and each time there was an argument to be made he should have won the playoff's MVP award. This go-round, averaging 31:36 per game and among the top scorers in the playoffs, the award is his to lose.
The series' biggest X-factor will be… Brent Seabrook. Why? Because he always seems to be, doesn't he? Whether he does it with a game-winning goal or an injurious hit, Seabrook is the Blackhawk who crushes an opponent's soul, right when the team is starting to gain momentum.
What will we remember most about this Stanley Cup Final? The cementing of a Blackhawks dynasty, sure, but also the start of a lengthy Lightning run. I'm picking the Lightning to lose, but they have separated themselves from the pack in the East and will only get better as their stars get more experience. They'll be back.
Whose legacy will be impacted the most? Corey Crawford. The Blackhawks' coach (Joel Quenneville), top forwards (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa) and top defensemen (Keith and Seabrook) already have Hall of Fame credentials.
A second Cup ring—and especially another Conn Smythe-deserving performance—would at the very least ensure Crawford is the subject of future Hall debates like the one over Chris Osgood (himself a two-time champ as a starter).
Dave Lozo, NHL Lead Writer
Who wins? In how many games? The Chicago Blackhawks will win in six games.
This is the Blackhawks' third trip to a Final in six years, while the Lightning, a young team, mostly will be getting their feet wet. Chicago's best players are at the top of their game right now and should carry that over into this matchup with the Lightning. The Lightning have top-end players too, but the Blackhawks have more of them.
After winning in Philadelphia in 2010 and Boston in 2013, the Blackhawks will finally raise the Cup at home.
The Conn Smythe winner will be… The Blackhawks have three players with a chance at it, but it will go to Duncan Keith.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are compiling big numbers. Keith is doing the same thing from the back end that is basically playing with four defensemen. If Chicago wins, Keith will get the award.
The series' biggest X-factor will be… The goaltending will decide this, but not in that Henrik Lundqvist/Tim Thomas/Jonathan Quick sort of way.
Corey Crawford and Ben Bishop have looked awful at times this postseason. If one or the other has the light go on, they could make the big difference.
What will we remember most about this Stanley Cup Final? Mainly, the offensive skill will be unlike anything we've seen for a long time. Both teams can play a fast game, and whether it's the Blackhawks' stars or Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov or Ondrej Palat, there will be great action.
Whose legacy will be impacted the most? This will be the series that cements Jonathan Toews as one of the NHL's all-time greats. He will leave it with his third championship and will be forever associated with Steve Yzerman, the general manager of the Lightning who he will vanquish.
Steve Macfarlane, National Columnist
Who wins? In how many games? I wanted to pick the Tampa Bay Lightning. For one thing, it really riles up the passionate Chicago Blackhawks fans, and I love learning new words. But I can't do it because I don't believe the Bolts will pull it off.
The Blackhawks have too many spectacular players who have been there before. The Lightning might be saying the same thing a few years from now, but I don't think the top-end talent compares. The Hawks will take it in six, winning on home ice.
The Conn Smythe winner will be… As impressive and timely as Jonathan Toews' contributions have been, it's Duncan Keith, hands down, as long as he continues to defy normal human logic surrounding fatigue and keeps pumping out the points while racking up massive minutes.
Of course, the Blackhawks have to win the series as well. Barring a mind-blowing performance in the Cup Final from someone else, Tyler Johnson is the guy for Tampa.
The series' biggest X-factor will be… Ben Bishop. I've long been a believer in the idea the best goaltenders lead to championships. But with Bishop and Corey Crawford in net, that's obviously not always the case. Not that either of them stink, but they're definitely not elite. They do have the ability to get hot, and if big Bishop gets on a roll, he gives his underdog Lightning a chance.
What will we remember most about this Stanley Cup Final? That dynasties can exist in the modern NHL. A third Cup win in six years for the Blackhawks would be massive in the salary-cap world we live in. They continue to keep the core together and find the right fits to plug in the other holes even when giving up some important pieces.
Whose legacy will be impacted the most? Head coach Joel Quenneville. And maybe his mustache, too. Quenneville can crack the top 10 coaches of all time with a third Cup victory and continues to pad his numbers as a playoff winner. Still, he seems to never get enough credit because of the talent he guides.
Jonathan Willis, National Columnist
Who wins? In how many games? I feel more comfortable projecting this series to go seven games than I do picking a winner. Watching each of these clubs overcome massive obstacles to get to this point has left me with an abundance of faith in each. Every time I want to pick one, I come up with a half-dozen reasons why the other won't lose. In the end, I come to Chicago by the thinnest of margins.
The Conn Smythe winner will be… Duncan Keith. There exists no shortage of superb candidates, but if Chicago wins, it has to be Keith. Not only has he been a wonderfully effective offensive player, but with the Blackhawks' depth issues on defence, he has been forced to carry the team's blue line in a way few of his predecessors have.
The series' biggest X-factor will be… Tampa Bay's forward depth. The Lightning can't win this without exploiting Chicago's issues on defence, and to do that they'll likely need some production from what so far has been an impotent bottom six.
Ryan Callahan can do more and must; the rest of the group can do something but hasn't shown that ability yet. I keep wondering at what point Jon Cooper turns to Jonathan Drouin to address the lack of offensive punch from the bottom of his lineup.
What will we remember most about this Stanley Cup Final? This feels a lot like 2008, when a proven Detroit team fended off a young and hungry Penguins squad.
At the time, it felt like a last gasp for the Red Wings and the dawn of a Pittsburgh dynasty; only one of those things has really been true. Our memories will be framed in large part by what follows, but my guess is that we'll remember this as the year when Chicago established itself as a dynasty and the first of many years of greatness from the Lightning.
Whose legacy will be impacted the most? Victor Hedman. This will be the moment when fans across the league take notice of him as one of the game's finest defensemen, as 2010 was for Duncan Keith or 2012 was for Drew Doughty.