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Two dimunitve forwards, Tyler Johnson and Patrick Kane, should play a big part in this series. (sportingnews.com)

NHL Stanley Cup 2015 Preview

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Chicago Blackhawks

Jonathan Toews is the ideal player to pick if someone were starting an NHL franchise from scratch. Sidney Crosby is a hard hit away from a career-ending concussion. John Tavares is a special talent but he has hasn’t proven himself quite yet. Steven Stamkos would be a fine choice, but Toews is the closest thing you can get to David Ortiz in hockey. While Mike Trout is definitely the better overall player, what you want Big Papi at the plate with two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning in Game 7 of the World Series.

With his back against the wall, Toews has proven time and time again that he can be counted upon to step up and deliver. He has captained the Hawks to two Stanley Cups since 2010, and owns an absurd 11-4 record in elimination games since being drafted in 2006. In the Western Conference Finals, Toews became the first player in NHL history to have multi-goal performances in Games 5 and 7 on the road in the same series. This isn’t his first rodeo, and it isn’t the first go-around for most of the players on this seasoned Chicago squad.

The Lightning offensive core of Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat may have the speed advantage, but they lack the experience that Chicago’s forwards have. The emergence of Brandon Saad and Teuvo Teravainen has given the Blackhawks an infusion of youth and speed that has blended with Toews and Patrick Kane to form a dynamic offence that doesn’t lose in overtime. Saad, in particular, has been a revelation during these playoffs. After breaking out as a solid second line option in 2013, he has taken his game to the next level in the post-season, racking up eight points on six goals and two assists.

On defence, Chicago has been blasted by analysts for its top-heavy lineup of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya, and Niklas Hjalmarsson, but those four by themselves could square off against just about any blue line in the league. If the minutes were heavy against Anaheim (Keith, in particular, has averaged a ridiculous 31:36 minutes through 17 games thus far), they’ll only rise against Tampa, and that shouldn’t worry anyone in Chicago. Joel Quenneville has serviceable options off the bench in Kimmo Timonen, David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey, but this is Quenneville’s 16th playoff appearance and he knows best of all that you don’t leave your best players on the bench in the Finals.

Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop is an outstanding goalie, but there’s no way he’s going to be able to succeed in slowing Chicago’s offence when Pekka Rinne, Devan Dubnyk, and Frederik Andersen all failed. Rinne and Dubnyk are both Vezina Trophy finalists who posted superior regular season save percentages to Bishop, and the Hawks steamrolled past both netminders with ease. Meanwhile, the Lightning took two more games to make it through a much weaker Eastern Conference to the Stanley Cup Final.

If the NHL were set in the world of Game of Thrones, the Hawks are a battle-tested group of grizzled Wildlings accustomed surviving in the brutal climate North (West) of the Wall. The Bolts are King Tommen, sitting pretty on the Eastern Conference throne despite not having ever unsheathed the Valyrian sword gathering dust under their race-car bed.

– Elie Waitzer

Pick: Blackhawks in six

Tampa Bay Lightning

Since the NHL instituted its myriad of rule changes to try and increase offence and scoring the league has turned into a game dominated by speedy forwards. That’s a good thing for the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose top two lines have scorched the blue lines of the teams they beat in the Eastern Conference.

Any good hockey team is built up the middle and the Lightning have an outstanding goalie in Ben Bishop, a top-five defenceman in Victor Hedman, and a superstar centre in Steven Stamkos. Also, unlike other top-heavy teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Lightning have shown remarkable balance from players who aren’t its superstars – for much of the post-season their second line “Triplets” of Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, and Tyler Johnson have been playing like a first line. Additionally Johnson, their second line centre, has been the breakout star of this year’s playoffs. While the Lightning have been devoid of scoring past their top six forwards – they combine for 82 per cent of the team’s goals this post-season – their bottom six forwards and gritty blueline have done admirable work. Overall Tampa Bay has only allowed opponents to have 28 shot attempts per game, nine less than Chicago, and has let in 2.45 goals against average (GAA), compared to Chicago’s 2.94 GAA. Hedman’s partner Anton Stralman isn’t as talented as the second-best blueliner on the opposition but he plays efficiently and rarely makes any mistakes, a benefit when playing against a team like the Blackhawks.

Yes, the Lightning are young (their average age of 26.38 is good for fourth youngest in the league) and comparatively inexperienced compared to Jonathan Toews and co; however, they have been tested during these playoffs and have performed extremely well in elimination games. Additionally the Blackhawks’ veteran blue line should be extremely fatigued following a grueling seven game series against the Anaheim Ducks, especially star defenceman Duncan Keith. Youth should be viewed as a positive, not a deterrent.

Ultimately, this series will come down to goaltending. Ben Bishop has been bothered by periods of inconsistency but he does lead the playoffs in shutouts and has posted two Game 7 shutouts this season. On the other side, Corey Crawford has also been his typical inconsistent self, he was even pulled in favour of Scott Darling in the first round of the playoffs, but has the experience of winning a title in 2013.

Tampa Bay and Chicago are extremely even across the board. Tampa Bay is the up-and-coming dynasty with a hotshot coach in Jon Cooper and its young stars. Chicago is the establishment and may have the best coach in the game in Joel Quenneville. The Blackhawks may be the favourites but the Lightning have played into the role of plucky, and extremely talented, underdog. Look for Ben Bishop to steal a few games for the Lightning as they clinch the series in seven games on home ice.

– Mayaz Alam

Pick: Lightning in seven

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