TAMPA, Fla. » The Chicago Blackhawks headed south this week to secure a dynasty, and the Tampa Bay Lightning are the only obstacle left.
Jonathan Toews and his teammates have raised the Stanley Cup twice in the past five seasons, compiling a wealth of big-game accolades in seven years as an elite team. They are just four wins away from a third NHL title that would establish them as the most accomplished club of their era.
The Blackhawks shrug off the weight of history, preferring to focus on the opener of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday.
"You never want to rest on your laurels," the Chicago captain said Tuesday after practice at Amalie Arena. "You want to keep creating new moments and new memories."
The hungry Lightning look at Chicago’s achievements and see everything they want. After surviving a perilous 20-game run through the Eastern Conference playoffs to earn the franchise’s second trip to the final, uncharted territory doesn’t scare this young Tampa Bay core.
"There’s no doubt that’s a team that you measure yourself against," Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos said. "They’ve been on top for so long, it seems like they were always there."
While the Blackhawks’ roster is dominated by two-time champions, Valtteri Filppula is the Lightning’s only player with a Stanley Cup ring. Most of Chicago’s stars are still largely in their primes, but Tampa Bay has the youngest roster in the postseason. Chicago coach Joel Quenneville has two rings, while Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper has coached just two full NHL seasons.
"We know they’re more experienced, but we’re still excited to be here," Tampa Bay forward Ondrej Palat said. "We’re going to do everything it takes to win the Stanley Cup."
Here are the other key story lines to watch when the final gets underway on a hot, humid day in Florida:
SPEED KILLS: Chicago and Tampa Bay have many contrasts, but share an eye-catching similarity: They love to play fast, aggressive hockey. Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks make a habit of outskating teams to utilize their unmatched skill, but Tampa Bay’s talented collection of young forwards is among the league’s quickest. "I don’t know how fast you can get, but this will probably be as fast as it goes," Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop said.
LIMITED NUMBERS: The Blackhawks’ famed championship depth only goes so far. Chicago relied heavily on just four defensemen in the Western Conference finals, and Duncan Keith played astonishingly heavy minutes in the series. It’s illogical to think the heavy workload — and the pounding administered by the Ducks in the last round — will have no effect on Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson, but not much is logical about Keith’s brilliance. "I don’t have a stopwatch out there, and I don’t know what the times are," Keith said. "I’ve always played a lot of minutes."
WHO BREAKS OUT?: Neither team ascribes to the notion that top-end talent will decide the series. Both clubs’ stars say secondary scoring will be crucial, and Chicago has a decided edge: Tampa Bay’s top six forwards have scored 45 of its 55 playoff goals, while Chicago has been more balanced. If complementary scorers chip in, here are two candidates on long skids: Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan has one goal in 19 games after scoring 24 in the regular season, while Chicago’s Brandon Bickell is goalless in 17 games after getting 14 in the regular season. "Hopefully I’ve been saving them for this round," Bickell said.
TYLER THE CREATOR: Tyler Johnson was an undrafted forward on the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs four years ago when Tampa Bay signed him. The 5-foot-8 dynamo has cemented his evolution into one of the NHL’s best scorers with a league-best 21 points in 20 games during this postseason. He forms one of the NHL’s most intriguing lines with Nikita Kucherov and Palat.
GOALIE FIGHT: Neither team has received stellar goaltending during its playoff run, presenting a sharp contrast to many recent NHL teams’ championship stories. Corey Crawford was briefly replaced as Chicago’s starter in the first round, while Bishop struggled for long stretches before combining with his more defensive-minded teammates on two late shutouts to close out the Eastern Conference finals.