It is the moment all of us hockey fans have been waiting for...The Stanley Cup Finals!! Who would have thought at the beginning of the season we would be seeing these two teams battle for the cup. Many might have accurately predicted one but most probably did not predict the other. Even when the playoff bracket was finalized, I doubt many saw this championship match up. I can say though #TwineTime did, from the beginning, pick one of these teams to be here....and not the one you expect.
The conference championship round sure lived up to the hype. Two back and forth series, a multitude of high suspense overtime games, hard hits, sick goals and we saw both series go the distance. Really, what more could we as fans ask for? Well, maybe for a repeat performance in the finals.
#TwineTime went .500 on the conference finals, accurately predicting a Bolts win but falling just short with the Ducks. Overall, my record sits at a respectable 9-5 record. Time to put it all on the table though, weigh the factors, look over the stats and make my Stanley Cup prediction.
Here we go puck heads...
STANLEY CUP FINAL
Eastern Conference Champion Tampa Bay Lightning vs Western Conference Champion Chicago Blackhawks
Let's take a look at our Eastern Conference champs first. The Tampa Bay Lightning were a trendy upset pick when the playoffs started, many thought they would do well but little expected them to weather the storm of Price and King Henrik to get here. Let me boast a bit here, I actually did predict the Lightning to be in this position. Ok so I may have had them playing St. Louis in the final but still. Tampa Bay is led by young dynamo Tyler Johnson. Johnson leads the playoff scoring race heading into the finals and if you haven't seen some of his highlight goals you need to do a YouTube search. 21 points and 4 game winners make Johnson a man to watch. But let's not undervalue the cast of names Tampa brings to the table. Remember Steven Stamkos? At the beginning of the playoffs perhaps yes you did forget about him but not lately. Stamkos has stepped up his game as the Lightning progressed through the playoffs and that should concern Chicago. If he is only starting to really roll now, what does that mean he has saved for the finals? Add in the offensive talent of Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, Lightning will strike! Kucherov has been a key impact player during these playoffs, tallying up 19 points in 20 games. Tampa may only be averaging 2.75 goals per game in the playoffs but let's consider who they have had to beat between the pipes. I think it is safe to say they have faced and conquered stronger goalies than who they will see in the finals....and knowing they already beat the best will provide huge confidence to these snipers.
The knock on Tampa will be playoff experience. None of their top players have much of it to speak of. Stamkos was around for the 2011 cup run (losing the Eastern Final to Boston) but one man cannot lead an entire team alone. This is where you will really see the impact Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle have made since joining the team. Stralman and Boyle have the memories of a cup final loss from last year with the Rangers still fresh in their minds. They can bring that experience and that motivation into the dressing room and help mentor the young guys around them. Yes high levels of testosterone and energy can be a positive but too much of both can hurt you as well. Finding the nice balance between the two and keeping the lockerroom in check will be where Stralman, Boyle and Stamkos leadership can shine.
What about Ben Bishop you ask? Well, what can I say about him? Perfect at times, scary at others. Two shut outs in pivotal games on the road in the conference finals is a huge strength for Bishop. Allowing 5 goals in 3 games is a cause for concern. So which Bishop shows up for the finals? The difference maker really is looking at how Bishop has played in elimination games. He looked great against Detroit in the opening round to avoid the upset and stepped up against the Rangers to get his team here. If the series is on the line, Bishop seems to be the man you want between the pipes in the playoffs. A .920 save percentage and 3 shut outs in the playoffs seems like pretty good numbers overall to me.
The West was won by the Chicago Blackhawks, as many expected. And rightfully so...this will be the third finals appearance for Chicago in 6 years. How did those previous appearances go? Well, they ended up winning the cup of course. Recent history alone would say the 'Hawks are strong favorites to win this season as well. They have the experience, the history, the tradition....they are creating a mini-dynasty. In fact, the past 3 seasons they have made it to at least the conference finals. This team has played A LOT of hockey the past few seasons and seem poised to continue.
A huge storyline in this final will be centered on current Blackhawks player, and former Lightning, Brad Richards. This will be a career homecoming for Richards as he began his career with Tampa Bay and led them to their only Stanley Cup Championship in 2004. And how good was he back then? Oh only the playoff MVP! Tampa fans loved him...let's see what reaction Richards gets this time around though. Considering he was with the club for 8 seasons, you have to hope the reception will be at least lukewarm....if not welcoming.
Ok so what does Chicago bring to the finals? Oh just an offensive juggernaut assault from Jonathon Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad, the list goes on and on. Toews and Kane lead the way with 20 and 19 playoff points in only 17 games played. When you are averaging multiple points every game, you are a wrecking crew. From the blue line, Keith has been instrumental in setting up the big goals at the right time, having 16 assists in 17 playoff games. All of this adds up to one impressive onslaught of offensive power. Tampa Bay, and more specifically Ben Bishop, will have their hands full trying to shut down this offense game in and game out.
I noted above the up and down playoff's Bishop is having between the pipes for the Bolts, I can probably write a similar line here for Corey Crawford. A 9-4 record in the 14 playoff games he has played with a .919 save percentage and 3 shut outs of his own are above average numbers and they are on par with his competition. The biggest cause for concern will be the goals against with Crawford averaging 2.56, compared to Bishop's 2.15. But, similar noting to Tampa playing strong 'tenders in their series victories, Chicago has met strong offensive teams in the playoffs. Both Nashville and Anaheim were able to light the lamp for a few games, pressuring Crawford and chasing him from the net. The only reason Crawford's GAA is as low as it is would be because Minnesota basically did nothing offensively against the 'Hawks. If Crawford can find his footing early in the series and take away the home ice advantage for the Lightning, Chicago's chances of winning another cup will go up dramatically. If Crawford struggles in the opening games on the road, we could see Scott Darling make his Stanley Cup finals debut.
So after gathering all the facts and analyzing all the data, #TwineTime is ready to give it's final prediction. The 'Hawks have the playoff experience and All-Star lineup to dominate any team. Toews and Kane seem focused on winning another cup and this could be their last chance at establishing themselves as a dynasty with the West getting stronger every season. Chicago has a strong D but I think the Lightning offense can solve them. Crawford can be good and he can be horrible. With the Lightning already having the confidence they can beat the best goalies in the league and knowing Crawford can struggle, they should be able to pounce on him and steal a few wins on this alone. I expect a back and forth series, similar to what we saw in the conference finals but in the end I like the upset. Plus, let's be honest Canadian hockey fans, deep down you want to see Steve Yzerman win another Stanley Cup. Stevie Y already has one cup as an executive (2008, Detroit) but this would be his first championship as General Manager. How cool would it be to see Yzerman on the ice with the cup held overhead one more time!!
#TwineTime Stanley Cup Champion Pick: Tampa Bay Lightning over Chicago Blackhawks - 7 games
Conn Smyth Pick: Tyler Johnson - Tampa Bay Lightning
There you have it my puck heads and grinders. Sticking true to my prediction at the start of the playoffs and hoping to see Lord Stanley back soaking up the rays on a beach in Florida (oh my what has the world come to when the state of Florida has more cups in recent years than all of Canada). Interesting side note though for those indifferent on this series, and an attempt to get you on my side, if Tampa wins they will have successfully faced and knocked off 4 Original 6 teams to grab the cup. They are already the 1st to face 4 Original 6 teams in the playoffs...might as well make it a perfect 4 for 4! Enjoy the pinnacle of sports...the Stanley Cup Finals!!