"Upstart Lightning vs. experienced Blackhawks squad that's seen and done it all" seems to be the favorite for now, and playoff experience is certainly a factor that will play a role in how the series shakes out. So will home ice advantage, something the Lightning will enjoy in the final in part due to the relative weakness of the Eastern Conference and their 32-8-1 regular season home record.
Both teams play a fast, aggressive style of puck-possession hockey that emphasizes carrying the puck through the neutral zone, creating rush chances, and hemming opponents in for long, dangerous multi-shot shifts that inevitably result in significantly more chances and goals for than against. Chicago-Tampa Bay will be something of a mirror match -- who can play this style better?
The Tampa Bay Lightning have, over the course of Jon Cooper's tenure behind the bench, established themselves as one of the league's premiere puck possession teams. That's a two year sample, however; Chicago has been elite by any puck possession metric you can dream up for a half-decade.
|Corsi For %||53.0% (4th)||53.6% (2nd)|
|Corsi For/60||55.94 (8th)||60.32 (3rd)|
|Corsi Against/60||49.55 (3rd)||52.14 (11th)|
|Score-Adjusted Corsi||53.3% (7th)||54.4% (2nd)|
There is a clear advantage to Chicago here, which is expected giving their incredibly deep forward group and strong top-4 defense, not to mention Joel Quenneville's system play that leads to plenty of long trips to the offensive zone. If there's a chink in armor of the Hawks' possession game, it's revealed in the Corsi Against numbers; Chicago isn't totally vulnerable, but they've generated their advantage by outshooting opponents moreso than playing lockdown defense and making life difficult for opposing offenses.
By contrast, the Lightning were one of the best shot suppression teams in the league during the regular season while still generating a lot of shots of their own. Stumbles against both the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens in the first two rounds of these playoffs have seen a significant drop-off in overall 5v5 play for the Bolts, who have at times looked utterly dominant (Game 1 vs. Detroit, Game 6 vs. Montreal, Games 5 and 7 vs. the New York Rangers) and other times totally lost (period 3 of Game 6 at home vs. NYR comes to mind, as do a handful of games vs. both the Wings and Habs).
Overall, the Lighting are still suppressing shots at a very good rate (50.9 CA/60 in the playoffs, compared to 57.0 for the Blackhawks) but have dropped off considerably in terms of their own shot rates (down to 48.8 CF/60). Jon Cooper has, at times, turned to a far more conservative dump-and-chase approach in the playoffs that has stifled some of Tampa Bay's normally impressive offensive creativity, particularly through the neutral zone.
Ultimately, the team that wins the neutral zone will likely enjoy the possession advantage in the series. The Bolts will need to try and exploit Chicago's unique defense usage by putting pressure on them to defend rush chances whenever possible rather than chipping and trying to play a forecheck/counterattack game (like Anaheim tried and failed with) that they aren't suited to.
Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks
This should be the most exciting area of this series. Both teams have deep forward groups capable of scoring in bunches; either top-6 group can burn you on any shift as both clubs have dynamic playmakers and elite scorers littered throughout the lineup.
The playoff 5v5 chance numbers:
|High-Danger Chances For/60||9.8||9.4|
|HD Chances For%||50.3%||46.0%|
Tampa Bay's bottom-6 (or 5, when they play 11-7) hadn't been an issue during the regular season, but with Ryan Callahan ice cold, Jonathan Drouin a continued healthy scratch, and Cedric Paquette and Vlad Namestnikov both struggling to provide anything resembling offense, they've become a two-line team in the playoffs.
Fortunately for the Bolts, those two lines are damn good; the Triplets continue to be dominant offensively, scoring in every way imaginable and often turning the tide of games in favor of the Lightning. When Jon Cooper needs a shift that will push the puck out of Tampa Bay's end and into the opposition's, this is the line he goes with. It works more often than not.
Added to that is the Steven Stamkos line, most recently constituted of Tampa Bay's captain on right wing alongside Alex Killorn at left wing and Valtteri Filppula at center. Stamkos has worked hard at developing more of a two-way game over the past two seasons, but the Lightning have seen success with the move to wing freeing him up to use his speed on the rush and get out of the defensive zone quickly to pressure opposing D. The threat of his shot -- from literally anywhere on the ice -- is enough to make D back off and concede the blue line, which has helped the neutral zone attack tremendously, especially against the New York Rangers.
Still, it's hard to think two lines will continue to be enough against a group as talented and deep as the Blackhawks. The Bolts desperately need an ice cold Ryan Callahan, one of the struggling rookies (Cedric Paquette, Vlad Namestnikov) or the veteran 4th liners (Brian Boyle, Brenden Morrow) to start offering offense if the Bolts hope to keep up with the best forward group in the NHL.
Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks
This is the biggest area of contrast between these two clubs. Joel Quenneville has been riding his best D all playoffs, playing Duncan Keith nearly every other shift. His bottom pair -- expected to be David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey -- has taken "sheltered" to a new level these playoffs as Keith and co. do not only the heavy lifting, but most of the lifting in general.
Conversely, Jon Cooper has experienced a lot of success with an 11-7 alignment, using Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman together as a top pair, Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn as a 2nd pair, Matt Carle-Andrej Sustr, and Nikita Nesterov mixed in as a 7th defensemen for an odd 5v5 shift and second-unit power play time. Outside Hedman-Stralman and Nesterov on those spot minutes, the Bolts defense group has been uneven. Andrej Sustr continues to struggle with footspeed and gap control, which could be a major problem against Chicago's forwards, and Braydon Coburn still seems to be learning his way around Tampa Bay's system. His game has been extremely simple in Bolts blue, with lots of chip-outs and dump-ins and little in the way of sustained offensive pressure for the Bolts when he's on the ice.
Both teams have D capable of making clean exits and entries on their own and starting or joining a rush, so defending in transition will be critical. Rush chances are inevitable, and how they are defended will help determine the winner in this series.
Hedman and Stralman continue to be outstanding, and you could make a strong argument that both are on par with Keith in terms of elite D in the NHL. One wonders how much success the Lightning would enjoy if they were used as much as Chicago's top D were. Heavy usage for Chicago's top blue liners will undoubtedly by a major storyline, and whether or not the Lightning can exploit any fatigue in the top-4 or mistakes from the bottom pair could very well be the difference here. Tampa Bay has obvious concerns with Sustr and Coburn especially, but Chicago's insistence on not using 6D leaves the Bolts with the advantage here.
Advantage: Tampa Bay Lightning
Part 2 will cover special teams, goaltending, and conclude with a prediction for the series.