Game Time: 7:00PM Central
TV/Radio: NBC, CBC, TVA, WGN-AM 720
Reinventing Axl Rose: Raw Charge
A year later, the Blackhawks finally find themselves in the position they should have been in with 20 minutes to play against the Kings on June 1st. And with them, a return to the only hockey that matters. Hockey whose outcome will determine names engraved in silver, and on the Hawks’ side of the ledger, a chance at solidifying even much more than that. Standing in their way is now the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team more than comfortable at not only playing the exact game the Hawks want to and possibly even faster, but also gleefully seizing the opportunity to play the upstarts and define their own story rather than be a footnote in someone else’s.
Tampa has reached the final with speed, speed, and more speed, led by captain Steven Stamkos, arguably the best pure goal scorer of this era. After starting his career with grease clown Barry Melrose and then Bond villain trap artist Guy Boucher, Stamkos finally has a coach who understands his strengths and wants to push the pace in Jon Cooper. Stamkos himself started the playoffs slowly, with no goals and three assists in the opening series against Detroit, he’s posted 14 points in 13 games since, flanking Valtteri Filppula opposite the throbbing Harvard genius brain of Alex Killorn. Stamkos and Killorn see more offensive zone starts than any other forward at even strength, and Cooper will no doubt continue that trend with the benefit of last change tonight.
But behind Stamkos is where the real revelation has been, with Tyler Johnson not only leading the Lightning in scoring during the regular season, but also currently turning in a Conn Smythe caliber performance and leading the NHL in scoring with 21 points in 20 games. That includes 10 goals, 4 of which are game winners. He’s skated in between Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov since their days under Cooper in the AHL, and their experience together has produced some of the most electrifying (GET IT) hockey seen from a single line in recent memory. All three are relatively undersized but are blindingly fast, with Palat in particular playing a very complete 200 foot game. That’s been reflected not only on the scoresheet, but in the possession ledger as well, where the unit tops the Lightning in their share of shot attempts, with none of the three below 52%.
Behind these two lines though, things get a bit icky for the Lightning. On the third line Ryan Callahan provides a tremendous amount of energy and his forechecking and hits are the shit that makes old schoolers positively turgid, but he doesn’t really create a lot for himself. J.T. Brown plays a similar game, and has even less finish, but he’s certainly dogged in his backchecking. Brian Boyle is huge and can win a faceoff, but his offensive contributions are limited. And Brenden Morrow died four years ago. Rookie Jonathan Drouin could contribute some much needed flair to the bottom six, but has regularly found himself scratched, and Cooper has been only dressing 11 forwards for the better part of the playofs, leaving this grouping often mixed and matched.
On the back end for the Ning, their top pairing of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman are exceptional at driving the play and attacking a great deal more than they’re defending, each controlling well over 50% of the shot attempts while on the ice. Hedman in particular is far faster than his huge frame would indicate, and Stralman is exceptional positionally to cover for his partner’s wanderings. But past them is where things get a iffy for the Lightning blueline, which has an odd mix of giants and drifters. Andrej Sustr is a massive 6’8″ fixture on the second pairing, but there is no flash whatsoever to his game, and does not play nearly as nastily as could be assumed for a man that large. His partner will vary between Jason Garrison and Matt Carle, the former has little else going for him than a massive shot, and the latter has been simply lost despite playing relatively inferior competition. Braydon Coburn has been a combination of the two since coming over from Philadelphia, and both he and Carle likely still have burn scars from the 2010 final when they were with Philadelphia. And none of the three of them have more than a 46% share of shot attempts when on the ice during the playoffs, with Coburn boasting a particularly horrid 38.91%. Nikita Nesterov has been dressing as the seventh defenseman, and he starts an astounding 80% of his shifts in the offensive zone, but is a deft puck mover.
In goal is the colossal Ben Bishop, the tallest goalie in league history at 6’7″. Bishop’s numbers this postseason have been overall solid at a .920 save percentage, stopping .931 at evens, but he’s been uneven situationally and game to game. Especially curious is his awful .888 save percentage at home, where he’s only seeing 24 shots a start, and is 5-5 in those games. He’s exceptionally strong down low where his pads span the entire goalmouth when he’s allowed time to see the play and get down along the ice. But he clearly can be gotten to if a volume of shots is put on him.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, nothing appears to be changing in the lineups from Games 6 and 7 of the series against Anaheim. That means the Nuclear Option is still in play with Saad, Toews, and Kane still as the top unit, and there’s really been no reason to break them up to this point. They’re likely to see plenty of Stralman and Hedman, so look for the Hawks to utilize the Saad side of the ice for breaking into the Tampa zone, as his speed against Stralman is a bigger advantage than Hedman’s size advantage over Kane. As far as which forward unit they’ll see consistently, the best bet is on Brian Boyle who is really the only center who can hold Toews at bay at the faceoff circle.
Though the line fared well in Game 7, the concern remains that on the road the Bickell-Richards-Hossa line will be the one that gets picked on, and more than likely by the Triplets. Neither the the large (and likely hurt) Bickell or the aging Richards have anywhere near the speed to go up and down the ice with Johnson, Palat, and Kucherov, and it could force Joel Quenneville into quick changes off the faceoff once again. Fortunately, however, the Hawks hold a distinct advantage with two productive two-way lines on their bottom six, and which would leave one unit to shadow Stamkos, and the other to push the pace against the remnants of the Lightning forwards. Opposing coaches seem to be quite alright with letting Marcus Kruger deftly handle top assignments even with the benefit of last change, and Jon Cooper may do just that.
Once again the Hawk defensive corps is configured such that Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad will have adequate babysitters in the form of Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya respectively. This leaves Keith and Hjalmarsson presumably to draw the Triplets to start, but as always, if the game is close late, look for Q shorten the bench and go with his traditional top two pairings. Ice times be damned at this point in the season.
In net Corey Crawford in particular will have his work cut out for him in this series. While the Lighnting don’t have a true net front presence on their top 3 lines other than maybe Callahan, they can move the puck laterally and make goalies look absolutely foolish. But the best way to avoid those kinds of shots on Crawford is to limit the opportunities.
This series might be one of the fastest in terms of on-ice play that the league has seen since the 80s, but casual observers might be slightly disappointed in the early goings tonight as both coaches will likely wait for the other to show their respective hand first. That being said, Jon Cooper has shown to have no use for tradition for tradition’s sake, and could decide to floor it from puck drop. Either way, this will not be a hit fest just for the sake of some kind of inscrutable toughness contest, both of these teams try to hit the opposing blue line with speed and possession. Tampa in particular likes to break in at the middle of the ice and draw 2 or 3 defenders to the puck carrier, and then slip the pass directly laterally to a wide open speeding winger.
The time is finally at hand. The games that matter are here. The opportunity is now. Let’s go Hawks.