Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Chicago Blackhawks series preview

TAMPA, Fla. — The road to the Stanley Cup Final can feel like a trek through Death Valley, but in their steps left behind throughout the postseason, the Tampa Bay Lightning have discovered their oasis.

By now, there should be no test that looks too large for them. By now, there should be no obstacle created in the media swirl nearby that appears too daunting for them to hoist hockey’s biggest prize and announce to the world that this young-and-tantalizing era is here to stay for a long while.

The Chicago Blackhawks, a worthy adversary, stand as Tampa Bay’s final foe in this long-and-winding journey. But in reality, the Lightning’s greatest challenge on the NHL’s grandest stage will come from within. Belief in their ability to beat a proven opponent, one with big-city glitz and comfort around the Cup, will be their greatest weapon on the ice. They alone control their fate.

If recent results have shown us anything, it’s that you should doubt this bunch at your own peril.

"The one thing about this group, we just found out more about ourselves as every round has gone on," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Tuesday at Amalie Arena. "I think it’s going back two years. I think when Stammer (Steven Stamkos) went down, we really had to find out about ourselves. Players were put in positions, especially (Tyler) Johnson and (Ondrej) Palat, (Alex) Killorn, that they necessarily didn’t think they’d be in that early in their careers.

"Every time there’s been that little bit of adversity, we feel like we’re down and out, they come back with a knockout punch. But that started two years ago, and the attitude has not changed."

It seems appropriate that the Lightning, with their more mature postseason attitude, must face the Blackhawks for the chance to tower over the NHL’s universe. Chicago, after all, has earned what Tampa Bay hopes can be done here: Sustained success that includes multiple Stanley Cup championships. There’s no denying the Blackhawks’ sterling reputation of late, a legacy that includes seven consecutive postseason appearances with two campaigns that ended in kissing the Cup.

But recently, the Lightning have kicked dirt in history’s face. They’ve wiped mud on trends and assumptions that favored the opposition. The Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers all witnessed a collection of young drive complemented by veteran attitude that answered the call when the stakes were highest.

Games 6 and 7 against Detroit.

Game 6 against Montreal.

Games 5 and 7 against New York.

All are footprints in Tampa Bay’s journey. All were formative. All have shaped the Lightning for this final showdown.

"I think, definitely, the challenges we’ve been put through this playoffs have helped us grow a lot as a team and as a group," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. "That first series, (it was) a very much up-and-down series, being down 3-2 in games having to battle back going to Detroit and having to win and coming back here with a chance to close it out, I think we grew a lot there. Then that kind of carried over into the Montreal series. … It shows a lot of growth, I think. And we keep growing with each challenge, and this is the greatest one so far. And I think it’s definitely not going to be perfect all the time. I’m sure we’re going to have our ups and downs like always. But you want to see that growth, that development as a team. And I definitely think we’ve shown that so far."

There’s more to show, of course. But no matter this series’ result, the Lightning have won.

A loss here would leave no deep scar. By advancing past at least two series and reaching this level, the Lightning have exceeded all reasonable expectations. Even if they fall short of clutching that coveted Cup, there are reasons to anticipate that their heartbeat will be strong to start next season.

But for them, they should be greedy. There’s no guarantee that they’ll compete for a Stanley Cup again. There’s no guarantee that the fire that has lit this run will crackle in years to come.

Seize the day. Capture the moment.

"With every series, there brings a new set of challenges," Killorn said. "We see these challenges. We seem to overcome them.

"Chicago is a team that’s been there, they’ve done that. The past five years, they’ve won two Cups. You can’t really put a price on that kind of experience. But I think we have a really good young group, a passionate group."

Added Palat: "Confidence is huge for us. Last year, I probably wouldn’t make the same plays I’m making now. I’m sure it’s the same with a lot of young guys. Every game the young guys are playing, every game they get better. And that’s huge for us."

One more series to come up huge. One more setting where they can prove no one stands taller.

SEASON SERIES

Nov. 11 at Chicago: Blackhawks 3, Lightning 2 (shootout)

Patrick Kane made the decisive shootout goal, lifting Chicago to victory after Tampa Bay took the game into the extra periods after a shot by Nikita Kucherov in the third. The Blackhawks outshot the Lightning 39-27.

Feb. 27 at Tampa Bay: Lightning 4, Blackhawks 0

Ben Bishop had 28 saves, and Stamkos produced two goals in the Lightning’s rout. Tampa Bay broke open a scoreless game after the first period with two goals each in the second and third. Brian Boyle and Ryan Callahan also scored.

INSIDE THE NUMBERS

11: Goals for Stamkos in five career home games against the Blackhawks. He also has posted three assists in such contests.

22: Combined goals by Tampa Bay’s Johnson (12) and Chicago’s Kane (10) in the postseason. They hold the top two goal-scoring totals in the current Stanley Cup Playoffs.

2004: Year of Tampa Bay’s most recent appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. That time, the Lightning beat the Calgary Flames in seven games.

X FACTORS

1. Will the Lightning’s defense deliver them the Stanley Cup?

There will be plenty of attention given to the speed and offensive skill of both teams. But Tampa Bay is most dangerous when it plays lock-down defense, as shown by its performances in Games 5 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Lightning have posted a 2.45 goals-against average through 20 postseason games, which stands as a slight improvement over their 2.51 total from the regular season. Sure, they will score. But they’ll be even more dangerous if they defend their net well.

2. Will the Lightning’s inexperience in this situation become a factor?

Tampa Bay’s youth will be something to watch throughout the series. Chicago is familiar with this stage, having won the Stanley Cup in 2010 and 2013. But the Lightning haven’t allowed inexperience in big postseason moments to become hindrances in recent weeks. They showed a savvy demeanor beyond their years in beating the Rangers and Red Wings in pressure-packed Game 7 matchups. More tense moments await. We’ll learn if Tampa Bay stands ready.

3. Will the Lightning play better at Amalie Arena?

For a team that won 32 games at home in the regular season, Tampa Bay has struggled at Amalie Arena of late. The Lightning have lost five home games in these Stanley Cup Playoffs, including two in the previous series against the Rangers. Tampa Bay will enjoy home-ice advantage against Chicago, but it will be interesting to see how much of a factor it will be. The Lightning have been better on the road in the postseason.

THE LIGHTNING WILL WIN THE CUP IF …

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1. They score first most of the time.

When the Lightning score first, the result is practically decided. Tampa Bay stands 9-0 in the postseason when earning that pivotal 1-0 lead. It’s obvious that the Lightning play with more confidence when they snatch an early advantage. If the Blackhawks fall behind early, they better look out.

2. They allow Stanley Cup Final veterans to lead the way.

There’s no worthy simulation for a Stanley Cup Final. The best preparation is living through one, and this is why veterans such as Boyle, Stralman, Valtteri Filppula, Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn and Brenden Morrow will be valuable. Each player has appeared in a Stanley Cup Final, and they can provide perspective in moments when Tampa Bay will be tested the most.

3. They don’t change the formula of what brought them here.

Why alter anything now? The Lightning have reached this point for a reason, so there’s no need to make drastic changes. There’s no use in over-thinking the situation. After all Tampa Bay has gone through during the postseason — from rallying against Detroit to closing out Montreal to winning Game 7 at Madison Square Garden — there should be no fear when entering this situation. Yes, the Blackhawks have lived Stanley Cup Final experiences and hoisted the NHL’s greatest prize multiple times. But the Lightning are capable of doing the same.

FINAL THOUGHT

Enjoy what’s ahead. For all the Lightning have lived since the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the best stands ahead. Despite being young and green on this stage, the Lightning should carry no qualms about their ability to manage the task ahead. Their largest challenge will be blocking out the noise that comes with this series. They carry the offensive firepower and defensive potential to win. If they can manage the static and play to their strengths, a Stanley Cup title will be theirs.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.