TAMPA, Fla. — Around the Tampa Bay Lightning locker-room, the respect for the Chicago Blackhawks almost felt like reverence.
Players and coach Jon Cooper reminded everyone that Blackhawks were in their third Stanley Cup final in six years, and goaltender Ben Bishop called them the deepest, most skilled team in the playoffs. Captain Steven Stamkos offered more praise.
“You look at their top two lines and their top four (defencemen), it’s almost like the Harlem Globetrotters out there at times on the ice the way they can pass it and move,” Stamkos said. “They’re champions for a reason.”
Yes, they are champions of the recent past, but the Lightning look like champions of the present. Their top-end talent of Stamkos, centre Tyler Johnson and defenceman Victor Hedman isn’t as accomplished as the Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith, but they’ve proving they can win in the playoffs just the same.
When Stamkos didn’t score for the first eight games, Johnson shouldered the load. Now he has a playoff-best 12 goals and 21 points.
When Stamkos started scoring, the goals came in bunches and the Lightning beat the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers. Tampa Bay’s top two lines of Johnson between Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov — the “Triplets” — and Valtteri Filppula between Alex Killorn and Stamkos stack right up against Chicago’s top six of Toews, Kane, Brandon Saad, Marian Hossa, Brad Richards and Bryan Bickell.
“Their role players have been great, too,” Stamkos said of the Blackhawks. “They’ve got some pretty skilled guys on the third and fourth lines, too.”
The likes of Patrick Sharp, Antoine Vermette, triple-OT hero Marcus Kruger and Andrew Shaw bear out that the Blackhawks have better bottom-six scoring. But Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow are shutdown and faceoff specialists who can handle Chicago’s depth.
On defence, the Lightning have more talent and depth than the Blackhawks, from Hedman and Anton Stralman to Jason Garrison, Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle and Andrej Sustr. Cooper likes to play seven defencemen, too, and Nikita Nesterov is no slouch.
Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya have been taxed this post-season, and the Lightning aim to put more pressure on them.
“We feel like our team, we generate a lot of speed and we’re a good cycle team down low, so I’m sure that’s something we’ll try to use to our advantage,” Carle said.
Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford won the Cup in 2013 and was a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate. Rebounding from a horrific start, his numbers are almost identical to Bishop this post-season.
Bishop has done exactly what the Lightning have asked of him, including two Game 7 shutouts.
“Ultimately he’s the last line of defence, and usually he’s the guy that gets the finger pointed to him if he hasn’t done well,” Cooper said after Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final. “But more often than not, when they do well, they should be patted on the back, and that’s what Bish has done for us. He’s another one that these as these games have gotten bigger, he’s stood tall.”
The games don’t get any bigger than this, and Stamkos said he and his teammates are ready to embrace the monumental stage of the Cup final. The Lightning are primed to do just that.
Pick: Lightning in 6.
Follow @SWhyno on Twitter
Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press