Lightning vs. Blackhawks: Line-by-Line Breakdown of 2015 Stanley Cup Final
The Blackhawks and Lightning have definite similarities in terms of playing style and star players at key positions, but each club gets the job done in a unique way, and this ultimate series of the Stanley Cup playoffs should be a joy to watch.
Both clubs have had a tough road to the Final.
Chicago overcame the defensive prowess of a tight-checking Nashville club, swatted aside the red-hot Wild and came out on top after an exhausting seven-game matchup against the pugnacious Anaheim Ducks.
Tampa Bay has had it tough, too. An always-difficult Detroit team took the Bolts to seven games in the first round. In the second, the Lightning overcame the team that swept them a year ago and beat the guy who might be the league's best goalie in the process. In the third, they beat the other guy who might be the league's best goalie and put away the defending Eastern Conference champions.
How do these two teams match up? What strengths do the upstart Lightning—a potential dynasty making their first serious run—bring to the table? Can the experienced 'Hawks, looking for their third Cup in six years, hold them off? Read on to see how the rosters of each team compare.
Tampa Bay: LW Ondrej Palat, C Tyler Johnson, RW Nikita Kucherov
The most productive offensive player in the postseason through three rounds is a pint-sized centre who was so undervalued by major league scouts during his junior days that he couldn't convince any NHL team to part with even a seventh-round draft pick to acquire his services.
Tyler Johnson, a crafty devil with the puck who shoots, stickhandles and sets up with equal skill, has really come a long way.
His running mates have had similarly meteoric rises. Ondrej Palat was a seventh-round pick, but his defensive ability and playmaking vision have been a great fit for Tampa Bay's first line. Nikita Kucherov was more highly touted at the draft but is still on his entry-level deal; his blazing speed and rounded offensive skill set make him a formidable weapon already.
The line lacks size (Palat, at 6'0" and 190 pounds, is by far the biggest of the three), but that simply hasn't been relevant; three vanquished opponents so far have tried and failed to contain it.
Chicago: LW Brandon Saad, C Jonathan Toews, RW Patrick Kane
Generally, the Blackhawks have played their two great stars on separate lines, all the better to create line-matching problems for the opposition. Against the Anaheim Ducks' duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, however, it made sense to put Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews together.
The results were spectacular. Yahoo's Josh Cooper called the decision by coach Joel Quenneville "not just smart" but "flat-out brilliant." In the same piece, he quoted a satisfied-sounding Quenneville on why the line worked:
They took off right away. Saader had a real good last part of the series where he was dominant in a lot of ways. Kaner with his play and patience level, play selection, as good as it is. Toews, call it everything. Really gives us a lot of options offensively and defensively. They play the right way. They had really a couple big games for us.
It seems likely that the two will be split up at some point in the coming series, as the Lightning have two really potent top lines, but for the time being, they are together on what might be the NHL's best forward unit.
Tampa Bay: LW Alex Killorn, C Valtteri Filppula, C/RW Steven Stamkos
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay's captain and established offensive superstar, was criticized after an ineffective first round. That criticism has been muted of late, because in the second and third rounds, he found the range against two of the best goalies in hockey.
Over his last 12 games, Stamkos has beaten Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist seven times, and on seven other occasions, he's earned an assist on somebody else's goal.
The Lightning's second line has a classic feel to it. Stamkos is the scorer, Valtteri Filppula the two-way threat and playmaker and Alex Killorn the chippy grinder. The three have balanced each other nicely, and this is more like a No. 1A line than a true No. 2 unit.
Chicago: LW Bryan Bickell, C Brad Richards, RW Marian Hossa
This line didn't get a lot of time together in the final game of the Anaheim series, as Bryan Bickell was hurt early, but Joel Quenneville told CSN's Tracey Myers that Bickell "should be fine" going forward.
Against the star power of the Stanley Cup Final, it's easy to underrate this unit, but it has a lot going for it.
Marian Hossa has long been a brilliant two-way player, and while he's slowing down a little as he ages, he's still an offensive threat and a defensive stalwart. Brad Richards is a veteran playmaker, a warhorse with a Conn Smythe trophy earned in the Lightning's service. Bickell brings the brawn and has a history of scoring in the postseason.
It's a good line, and it gets better if Patrick Kane rejoins.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay: LW/RW J.T. Brown, LW/C Cedric Paquette, RW Ryan Callahan
Scoring has been hard to come by from Tampa Bay's bottom six.
Ryan Callahan, with four points in the postseason, ranks No. 7 among Lightning forwards in total scoring. His third-line confederates have a single point each. J.T. Brown is quick and Cedric Paquette is physical, but in the playoffs, they've basically had to settle for holding their opponents in check, because they haven't been able to score.
Callahan and Brown have been crippled by wretched shooting percentages, and if those go north, this line's performance could satisfy, but for now, this is a trio decidedly outclassed by the opposition.
Chicago: LW Patrick Sharp, C Antoine Vermette, RW Teuvo Teravainen
This is an amazing third line.
Patrick Sharp is a top-six forward, a volume shooter and goalscorer. Antoine Vermette is a top-six forward, a two-way pivot with a range of skill. Teuvo Teravainen is young enough that we're not totally sure what he is yet, but he's a top young player and has six points through 12 playoff games.
Any one of these players could easily be bumped up to the second unit. On some teams, this line would be a second unit.
Tampa Bay: LW Brenden Morrow, C Brian Boyle (Spare: C Vladislav Namestnikov, LW Jonathan Drouin, C/RW Jonathan Marchessault)
The Lightning don't really have a firm bottom six; they generally run 11 forwards, and coach Jon Cooper mixes and matches the five guys at the bottom of the pile based on what happens during the game.
Brian Boyle might be the most important piece in the bottom two lines. A mammoth (6'7", 244 pounds) defensive centre who kills penalties and wins faceoffs, he's the team's first choice for defensive zone draws.
Brenden Morrow has been a fixture throughout the playoffs, but he's clearly nearing the end of the line and has struggled at points. The rest of the bunch have been shuffled in as needed, but none of them are really leaned on by Cooper.
Chicago: LW/C Andrew Desjardins, C Marcus Kruger, RW/C Andrew Shaw (Spares: LW/RW Kris Versteeg, LW Joakim Nordstrom)
Marcus Kruger does many of the same things that Boyle does for Tampa Bay, and if that's where the comparison ended, the Lightning might get the nod based on size alone.
But Kruger has an impressive supporting cast. Andrew Desjardins has been a solid fit since coming over from San Jose, but the real weapon on this line is Andrew Shaw, a versatile forward who has played all sorts of roles ranging from centre to wing to the second line and back to the fourth again.
The Blackhawks might have the best bottom six in hockey, and they are coming up against a team with real weaknesses in this area.
Tampa Bay: LD Victor Hedman, RD Anton Stralman
Victor Hedman is a complete defenceman and still a young one. He's good at everything and massive to boot; he has evolved into the franchise cornerstone that Tampa Bay projected him to be when the team made him the No. 2 pick of the 2009 draft.
His partner, Anton Stralman, is more subtly skilled. A free agent just last season, he got a massive pay raise to join the Lightning, but in the span of a year, that contract has become a bargain. He is the personification of puck poise, a highly intelligent defender and a superb complement to Hedman.
Chicago: LD Duncan Keith, RD Niklas Hjalmarsson
The Blackhawks' defence pairings have some flux to them, particularly with the struggles near the bottom of the depth chart, but Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson have been a supercharged top duo lately.
Not much needs to be said about either player; both are familiar to anyone who has seen playoff hockey the last few years. Keith is sublime with the puck and effective without it, while Hjalmarsson is as good a positional defender as there is in the NHL today.
Tampa Bay: LD Braydon Coburn, RD Jason Garrison
There isn't anything superlative about Tampa Bay's second pairing. They just get the job done.
Braydon Coburn and Jason Garrison are both big, experienced defenders who have played miles and miles of hockey against some of the best forwards in the business. Both can make plays with the puck (Garrison, in particular, has a heavy shot), and the Lightning often lean on them in a primary shutdown role.
Chicago: LD Johnny Oduya, RD Brent Seabrook
Johnny Oduya has had some ups and downs this season but has been reliable throughout the playoffs. His best attribute is his skating; he has the mobility to track even fast opponents and the quickness to recover from a mistake. He's been playing tough minutes for the Blackhawks for years now.
Brent Seabrook is a famous player because he's a "complete package" defenceman. He's big, smart, good at both ends of the rink and adds a welcome physical element to a group that mostly relies on a positional approach to defending.
Tampa Bay: LD Matt Carle, RD Andrej Sustr, LD Nikita Nesterov (Spare: LD Mark Barberio)
The Lightning have mostly gone with seven defencemen throughout the playoffs, and it's an understandable choice given the tools at the team's disposal.
Matt Carle is a two-way veteran who would be a first-pairing option on some NHL teams and a second-pair defenceman on most. He's been pushed down by Tampa Bay's depth but gives them real strength on the third pair. Andrej Sustr and Nikita Nesterov are both evolving young defencemen; the former a mammoth with puck skills, the latter an offensive specialist with the potential to grow into more than that.
Chicago: LD Kyle Cumiskey, RD David Rundblad (Spare: LD Kimmo Timonen; Injured: LD Michal Rozsival, RD Trevor van Riemsdyk)
Fully healthy, the Blackhawks have decent defensive depth. As it stands, they're a mess.
Kimmo Timonen has been a mainstay throughout the playoffs but finally found his way to the press box in the third round; at age 40, the onetime great looks done. Kyle Cumiskey, a minor league journeyman, has been fairly effective in limited minutes but clearly isn't trusted. David Rundblad has been better since a difficult first game but is also clearly still finding his way.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay: Starter Ben Bishop, Backup Andrei Vasilevskiy
Ben Bishop has faced criticism at times after weak games during the current postseason, but on the whole, the first-time playoff starter has handled himself well. His 0.920 save percentage is respectable, but more impressive has been his work in Game 7 situations. He has yet to allow a goal in the two that the Lightning have played.
Andrei Vasilevskiy is very much a backup, but the young goalie had an excellent cameo during the regular season and could step in if injury hits.
Chicago: Starter Corey Crawford, Backup Scott Darling
Corey Crawford and Bishop have some things in common, notably a penchant for drawing criticism despite what on the whole has been strong play. After a bumpy start to the playoffs which saw Chicago turn to Scott Darling in the first round, Crawford has played well and given his team a chance to win. His 0.919 save percentage is quite decent and he held up well against a challenge from the Ducks in the third round.
Darling was a fun story in the first round, stepping in ably for Crawford; the 'Hawks may not have advanced past Nashville if not for his efforts. If he's needed, the team will have confidence in him.
Advantage: Tampa Bay, narrowly
- First Line: Chicago
- Second Line: Tampa Bay
- Third Line: Chicago
- Depth Forwards: Chicago
- First Pair: Chicago
- Second Pair: Chicago
- Depth Defencemen: Tampa Bay
- Goalies: Tampa Bay
This should be fun.
Chicago appears to have a significant edge, but the truth is that at the key positions (the top two lines and the top two pairings), the Lightning are a very close match, and if the series hinges on those positions, it could go either way.
The Blackhawks have a massive edge in offensive depth, but Tampa Bay can counter with three bottom pairing defencemen it trusts, as opposed to the 'Hawks total of zero. Each club has weak links, and the coaching battle as Joel Quenneville and Jon Cooper try to shelter their own and exploit their opponents' should be fascinating to see.
The Blackhawks probably have a slight edge, but this doesn't shape up to be a mismatch, and we may well end up seeing another great seven-game series.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.