The Stanley Cup Finals are set. The Western Conference Champion Chicago Blackhawks will face the Eastern Conference Champion Tampa Bay Lightning for the chance to hoist Lord Stanley in the air, both winning their series in 7 games. Here are 5 key points that will make or break the teams chances in winning the Cup.
1. Goaltending: Both teams have had issues with their goaltenders early on in the postseason. In Game 1 in their series with Nashville, Chicago pulled veteran Corey Crawford for a rookie named Scott Darling, in which Chicago rallied to win in double overtime in that game. Tampa's goalie Ben Bishop made some mistakes in their first round series against Detroit, one of them going #1 on Sportscenter's Not Top 10 for a while. As their campaigns went on, both improved drastically. If I had to pick one goalie to watch, it'll be Crawford. After being pulled for a rookie, he has improved in his GAA (2.56) and has only let in 37 goals so far. Compare that to Bishop's (2.15 GAA, 42 goals), even though Bishop's GAA is better, he's inexperienced in the playoffs, and though it's been a great run, Crawford's experience will be the difference.
2. Team Scoring: Tyler Johnson has been on a tear for the Lightning, scoring 12 goals and totaling 21 points this postseason. The Blackhawks have Patrick Kane as the top scorer, but has had help with his teammates. The Lightning's usual star player, Steven Stamkos, hasn't been around much in this postseason, although he's getting there. The fact that Johnson has filled that role is good, but being a one man scoring machine won't help if you can't get your team involved.
3. Game 7's: Both teams won their conferences in 7 games. The Lightning have been in two game 7's this postseason (the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against Detroit, and the eastern Conference Finals against New York), and are a perfect 2-0 in the series. Chicago has been in one Game 7, against Anaheim, and won that handedly 5-3. If this series goes to a Game 7, it will be the 17th time in NHL history that the cup will be decided in a decisive game 7. Chicago has never been in a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals, whereas Tampa has been in 2004, winning against Calgary 2-1.
4. Penalties: Chicago has the least penalty minutes in the series overall with 136 total this postseason, whereas Tampa Bay has had 209 penalty minutes all postseason. Don't expect a clean, non-hitting affair now (this isn't the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight); this is hockey, it will never happen. Tyler Johnson has the most for the Lightning with 24 minutes, while Andrew Shaw leads the Blackhawks with 34. Shaw hasn't made an impact goal or assist wise, but Johnson has. If the Blackhawks want to win, they must get Johnson into the sin bin as often as possible.
5. Home Ice and Fans: The United Center can seat more than the Amalie Arena by a mere 500 screaming hockey fans. The Blackhawk faithful will use that to their advantage, and the noise in that building will be deafening to the core. The Lightning, meanwhile, have....an astronaut? A little weird, but I guess it works. Personally, I would like the morph suit guys from Vancouver...but I digress. The louder home ice is, the more of a problem it could be for the visiting team. Both teams have to find a way to deal with the crazy fans and astronauts all around.
Prediction: Blackhawks 4-2 Lightning in series: This will be a hard hitting Finals, and I am sure that Tyler Johnson will score some goals. But the Blackhawks have been playing as a team for a while, and have won the Stanley Cup with most of these players. They are a veteran team and will use that experience to dismantle the Lightning. I expect the Lightning to win two games at home, but the Blackhawks will run away with the Cup once again.