With the Tampa Bay Lightning securing their berth in the Stanley Cup Final after a dominant 2-0 Game 7 win over the previously untouchable-when-facing-elimination New York Rangers, attention turns now to tonight's follow-up; a Game 7 between the Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks to decide who the Lightning will meet in the Final.
There are advantages and disadvantages to facing each team; on a superficial level, the easiest thing for a Lightning fan to do is to root for the Hawks, who wouldn't have home-ice advantage over the Bolts while the Ducks would.
But, looking a bit deeper, how do these teams actually match-up?
A lot of the narratives surrounding the Ducks sound like those we're used to hearing about the Los Angeles Kings in recent seasons; a "big. heavy team" that plays aggressive and physical with a very deep blue line and outstanding top-line scoring talent.
At first glance, this looks like a bad match-up for the more speed-skill focused Lightning group. The Ducks can match the Lightning offensively and can pressure Tampa Bay's defensemen on the forecheck by stifling breakouts and forcing bad decisions in the defensive zone. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are match-up nightmares for any team, but especially Tampa Bay who lack a true "shutdown" unit. Brian Boyle is a capable defensive forward, but he can't eat the type of minutes he'd need to match-up regularly with the Ducks' top unit. Tampa Bay has, so far, neutralized opposing top-lines by feeding them a steady dose of either Steven Stamkos or the Triplets. Is that a match-up the Bolts win?
No team makes it this far without a strong blue line, and while the Ducks lack a top pair that compares to Victor Hedman-Anton Stralman, they have a very strong defense group and can rely on all three of their regular pairs to log good minutes for them. The decision by head coach Bruce Boudreau to continue to sit deadline acquisition James Wisniewski is an odd one, especially with pylon Clayton Stoner drawing regular minutes, but that's nitpicking a very strong group overall.
Frederik Anderson backstops this group, and his regular season save percentage of .914 and playoff mark of .919 seem downright pedestrian when compared to the goaltenders Tampa Bay has faced in the playoffs so far.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have been, in terms of construction, modeled after the Detroit Red Wings, but their on-ice play might resemble the 'Hawks more; speed, skill, and control of the puck are thing that both teams rely heavily on.
Chicago's forward depth is ridiculous, so much so that even Tampa Bay's much-touted depth pales in comparison. The Hawks have four lines that can beat you, two of which can simultaneously hamper your top scorers. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane's new contracts kick in next season, but until they do, the 'Hawks have an insane amount of talented weapons at their disposal up front. They're surgical in all three zones and have been one of the best puck possession teams in the league over the past handful of seasons.
If there's a chink in the armor, it's on defense; Duncan Keith has played a ludicrous 31:49 per game so far in the playoffs and looked damn good doing it, but one would think that much hockey would start to have a negative effect on performance eventually. That number is boosted somewhat by a few marathon OT games, but the nearest skater in average time on ice per game still active in the playoffs is his teammate, Niklas Hjalmarsson, at 26:33.
Trevor van Riemsdyk still hasn't appeared in the playoffs and Michal Roszival's injury has forced Joel Quenneville into essentially running four defensemen while sprinkling in some combination of Kimmo Timonen, Kyle Cumiskey, and David Rundblad, usually less than 10 minutes a night. It hasn't stung the Blackhawks yet, and they're still getting productive minutes out of their top-4. But one does wonder what a fast Lightning team could do against a worn-down Hawks blue line, or, with home-ice advantage, what they could do if the Triplets or Steven Stamkos get a shift or two against the bottom pair.
Ultimately, neither team presents a seriously bad match-up for the Bolts, who are obviously a very good team in their own right. The physicality of the Ducks has likely been overstated just a bit, and the Hawks do have a serious weakness on the blue line a more rested, home-ice-enjoying Lightning squad could exploit. Add to that that the Bolts will finally face a goaltender safely outside the "elite" class in the NHL in either case and this one is really a toss-up. Tampa Bay's home record in these playoffs has been uninspiring, but in the end you take it and try to turn it back into the advantage it's supposed to be -- so give me the Blackhawks.
The Bolts have already knocked out three Original Six clubs. What's one more?