The Chicago Blackhawks are overwhelming favorites to win the Stanley Cup, which begins Wednesday at Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay.
Pity the poor Lightning who, according to the majority opinion, are lower than The Low Man On The Totem Pole when it comes to their chances of winning Lord Stanley’s mug.
Normally, The Maven would buy that get-it-over-with-and-give-the-Cup-to-the-Hawks thinking.
Except that I watched the Lightning up-front-and-closer-than-close during the seven-game Eastern Conference Final with the Rangers. And, brother, sister, was I ever impressed.
What I saw was a Bolts team so shredded to tiny bits in Game 1 at The Garden that dreams of a Blueshirts sweep danced in my head.
I must have been daydreaming. Terribly, underestimating coach Jon Cooper’s corps, The Maven watched in awe as Tampa Bay rebounded and rebounded and ultimately exited with the Prince of Wales Trophy at The Garden.
Stunned to the very core, I vowed then and there never to underestimate this merry band of underdog Floridians.
That in two peanut shells explains why I pick the Lightning to win the 2015 Stanley Cup; which, in case you were wondering, is not named after me.
Here’s my Cup Final Preview.
Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Brad Richards are enough to scare the beehoozis out of any goaltender. But that’s not all the bombardiers coach Joel Quenneville has in his arsenal.
There’s also 20-year-old Finnish sensation, center Teuvo Terevainen, who has emerged from the mist to put fear into the Bolts along with Brandon Saad and … well, you get the point.
If you don’t, let me tell you that 22-year-old, Pittsburgh native Saad is a left wing fast moving into the elite offensive zone. And while Hossa and Richards aren’t what they used to be they’re not anything like the “Old Gray Mare” of legendary song.
That’s not all. Chicago boasts some awfully good defensemen who also are aces on the attack. How about Duncan Keith, last year’s Norris Trophy-winner, for starters — and finishers?
‘Nuff said about the Blackhawks armory.
On the other side, the Lightning offense features a lot more of the Lighthorse Harry types; and that’s not an insult either; not if you’ve seen the terrific Triplets in action.
Triplet Tyler Johnson brings the thunder more than any other player. The Tiny One is leading the playoffs in points (12-9-21), one ahead of Kane. Fellow Triplets Nikita Kucherov (9-10-19) and Ondrej Palat (7-8-15) have become an irresistible force that could turn the Chicago defense into a movable object.
Then there’s the hotshot Steven Stamkos, who finished second in regular season scoring with 43 red lights; not to mention seven reds and ten helpers in the postseason. The unsung hero happens to be Alex Killorn, the same guy who sunk the Rangers last Friday with the third period series-winner.
What’s more, Stamkos and the Triplets have combined for an astonishing 29 power play points and take up four of the top five spots among NHL players in extra-strength scoring. The lone exception is — you guessed it — Kane in fourth place with seven points.
The Windy City back line corps is so well-balanced that even when Nick Leddy emigrated to star in Nassau, hardly any loss was felt. Between Keith, Brent Seabrook, Nik Hjalmarsson and Johnny (How Do You Do) Oduya, you have as formidable a foursome as any would hope for in terms of D and attack.
Keith is the playoffs top-scoring blue liner with 18 points in 17 games. An indefatigable warrior, Duncan logged more than 40 minutes in Games 2 and 4 of the Anaheim series. No slouch himself, Seabrook is adept at taking away space and closing the gap, along with Hjalmarsson.
Remembered from his falling-down-too-many-times Devils days, Oduya has overcome that fault and will become one of the most sought unrestricted free agents this July. No question, Chicago misses that ever-youthful Michal Rozsival, out for the reamainder of the playoffs due to injury.
By contrast, the Lightning defense relies on two rocks; Anton (Remember Me) Stralman and Victor (The Giants’ Giant) Hedman. After that the quality of defending falls off somewhat with the likes of Matt Carle, Jason Garrison and Andrej (6-8 And Still Growing) Sustr.
At times the unit — with much cooperation from back checking forwards — can throw up a wall of weight in front of goaltender Ben Bishop. At other timers the Tampa D-men have the look of Swiss cheese.
In this the first season of a six-year contract extension that pays $6 million annually, Corey (The Crow) Crawford blows hot and cold. Luckily, Chicago has dependable Scott Darling as a backup. Usually when The Crow gets yanked, Scott is a darling.
Not that the Bolts have goalie-bragging rights. Although Ben Bishop was a Vezina finalist last season and set endless franchise records, black clouds hover over him on any given night when he’s so large between the pipes.
At 6-7, Bigger Ben can be clumsy in his side-to-side movements and often appears to need a construction crane to lift him back into position after he finishes swimming around the crease. But barring injury, coach Cooper will go with BB all the way.
So far in the playoffs, Tampa leads in power play percentage 22.2 to 19.6 for Chicago. Ditto on the PK, 81.2 for The Bay and 75.5 for the Hawks.
ADVANTAGE: TAMPA BAY
Each side is motivated for different reasons. Chicago to build a genuine dynasty and the Lightning to play the David role vs. Goliath. The Hawks also want to win this one for injured Dman, Michal Rozsival.
Joel Quenneville is the perfect coach for this star-studded group. On the other hand, Jon Cooper is building a mountain of kudos for the manner in which he’s orchestrated the Lightning. Respective general managers Stan Bowman and Steve Yzerman are as good as they come.
It’s far too easy to pick the Blackhawks because they’re more experienced and display such an array of aces.
Sure they are top-heavy with the ADVANTAGES. But there’s something captivating to me about the Bolts and it all goes back to watching them top our Rangers. Hence: LIGHTNING IN SEVEN.