CONFERENCE FINALS: Lightning beat New York Rangers in 7. Blackhawks beat Anaheim Ducks in 7.
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SEASON SERIES: Tampa Bay won 1-0-1.
STORY LINE: The Blackhawks are on the brink of a coronation as the greatest team of their era if they can claim their third Stanley Cup title in six years, while the Lightning hope to establish themselves as the best young team in hockey by knocking off the big dogs. Chicago’s championship experience and Tampa Bay’s youthful hunger provide a fascinating contrast in the first playoff meeting for these teams, both still buzzing from impressive road wins in Game 7 of their respective conference finals. Chicago stars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith are in position to cement their legacy after grinding through the West bracket, while the Lightning have already persevered through 20 postseason games to earn their franchise’s first trip to the Final since 2004. Tampa Bay was the NHL’s highest-scoring team in the regular season, but has played remarkable defensive games in the postseason, capped by two shutout victories at Madison Square Garden to close out the conference title. Chicago is the NHL’s second-best defensive team in the regular season, but doesn’t struggle for scoring – particularly not when Toews and Kane play on the same line, as they did to finish off the Ducks. Both powerhouses have weaknesses: Tampa Bay’s lineup is extraordinarily front-loaded, with its top six forwards accounting for 45 of its 55 postseason goals, while the Blackhawks’ lack of defensive depth was exposed in the Western Conference finals as they largely relied on just four blueliners.
TAMPA BAY’S KEY PLAYER: Steven Stamkos. The 25-year-old captain has the biggest showcase of his career playing opposite Toews in a compelling clash of elite Canadian forwards. Stamkos has an enviable list of accomplishments in seven NHL seasons, including a couple of 50-goal seasons. But leading a team to a championship is what makes the difference between good players and the best – like Toews.
CHICAGO’S KEY PLAYER: Duncan Keith. The Blackhawks’ top defenseman was on the ice for a jaw-dropping 230 minutes, 48 seconds in the seven-game win over Anaheim, both because of his tireless brilliance and because Chicago coach Joel Quenneville clearly didn’t trust his third defensive pairing. If Keith plays a similarly commanding role in the Final, this postseason will be among his greatest achievements and should make him a front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy.