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Will Blackhawks' Offensive Depth Be the Difference in the Stanley Cup Final?

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistJune 5, 2015

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There’s an old line that says when a team’s best players are in fact its best players, victory usually follows.

It’s a line the Tampa Bay Lightning have taken to heart over their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The team’s potent top six have been lethal over three rounds; no team has found a way to suppress the Triplets line and the Steven Stamkos-powered second unit for a full series.

There’s another somewhat contradictory maxim, though, one that says depth wins championships over a long playoff run. That was what was on display Wednesday night, when the Chicago Blackhawks’ best players were soundly thrashed by the opposition, but the Lightning walked away with a loss anyway.

Jun 3, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks left wing Teuvo Teravainen (86) battles for the puck with Tampa Bay Lightning center Cedric Paquette (13) in the first period in game one of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rein
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Teuvo Teravainen scored the goal that tied the game at 1-1 in the third period. Antoine Vermette scored the 2-1 winner less than two minutes later. They were the 13th and 14th goals from forwards this postseason outside of Chicago’s top-six group.

Teravainen in particular has improved over the course of the playoffs. Teammate Marian Hossa had some high praise for the young winger when interviewed by the Associated Press (h/t New York Daily News). 

"He's growing more confident every game," Hossa said. "He doesn't seem to have a heartbeat. He's so calm. He's Finnish cold."

In contrast, top-six forward Alex Killorn scored the Bolts’ only goal. Forwards outside the top six in Tampa Bay have contributed all of four goals over the postseason—as many as Andrew Shaw alone has managed.

m g @kikkerlaika

Ok, this is Tampa's bottom 6 scorig throughout their first three series: http://t.co/fijI34aTA6

That’s why, even on a night when the top line of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad was badly outplayed—shots were 11-3 in favour of the Lightning at evens when Toews was on the ice, recorded by NaturalStatTrick.com—the Blackhawks came away with the win.

Obviously, this offensive imbalance represents a problem for the Lightning and Jon Cooper. It is not, however, an insurmountable obstacle, as three series wins show. In Game 1, Cooper gave a hint as to how he was going to handle the issue. He decided to make a virtue out of necessity; since his role players could only play a low-event, non-offensive game, he would match them up against Chicago’s stars and hope they dragged their opposition down with them.

Toews' most frequent, even-strength forward opponents on Wednesday make for interesting reading, given what a wretched game he had:

Toews' even-strength opponents
OpponentIce Time% of Toews' minutes
Ryan Callahan7.5041.7%
J.T. Brown6.2034.4%
Alex Killorn5.8832.7%
Cedric Paquette5.8032.4%
Ondrej Palat4.5725.4%
NaturalStatTrick.com

Cooper allowed all of his forwards to play against Toews, but the primary matchup was the trio of Ryan Callahan, Cedric Paquette and J.T. Brown. That’s especially noteworthy because Cooper was the home coach and, with last change, had significantly more control over the matchup game than Chicago counterpart Joel Quenneville.

Callahan and company did fine work too. In 7:30 of head-to-head time between Toews and Callahan at even strength, the Blackhawks managed just a single shot to the Bolts’ five.  

May 22, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper in the first period in game four of the Eastern Conference Final of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the New York Rangers at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This hasn’t been Cooper’s stratagem all playoffs. According to war-on-ice.com, the Lightning’s top-six forwards have seen the toughest minutes for most of the postseason. But if Callahan and his confederates can maintain this kind of performance against good Chicago players, it’s decidedly less relevant that they aren’t converting on their chances.

That’s not to say that the Blackhawks’ offensive depth won’t decide the series; it’s already decided one game and is bound to continue to matter as the Final continues. But the Lightning seem to have found a way to get value out of their depth forwards, and that goes a long way toward equalizing the imbalance between the two teams.

Statistics courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com and war-on-ice.com.

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