Blackhawks: Despite playing against the defensive-minded Wild and the hard-hitting Ducks in the last two rounds, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have done what they do best — score in big games. They should have more room to work with against the more freewheeling Lightning. That also bodes well for Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, who have just four goals each. The Hawks’ depth at forward is unrivaled, with three legit scoring lines and a shutdown fourth line that can be a threat, too.
Lightning: Steven Stamkos might be the best pure goal-scorer in the league, and he busted out of an early scoring drought with seven goals and seven assists in his last 12 games. But the Lightning are hardly a one-dimensional team. Their second line of Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat — dubbed the Triplets — have scored 28 goals, with Johnson leading the NHL with 12. Alex Killorn has chipped in seven. Like the Hawks, they’re fast, and they’re highly skilled.
Blackhawks:Joel Quenneville is basically down to four defensemen, but they’re awfully good. Duncan Keith has been the Hawks’ best player this postseason. Niklas Hjalmarsson is as reliable a stay-at-home defenseman as there is in the league, Brent Seabrook continues to score big goals, and Johnny Oduya is steady and solid. Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad won’t see a lot of ice time, but their speed and puck-moving ability could be an asset in an uptempo series.
Lightning:While the Hawks play mostly four defensemen, the Lightning have been dressing seven, with just 11 forwards. Victor Hedman, 24, is an absolute stud and likely a future Norris winner. His partner, Anton Stralman, was a key player in the Rangers’ run to the Final last year. The rest of the defensive corps is adequate but uninspiring. The Lightning don’t win a lot of 2-1 games — they were the highest-scoring team in the regular season, but were middle-of-the-pack in goals against.
Blackhawks:Aside from a stellar performance in a sweep of Minnesota, Corey Crawford’s postseason numbers have been pedestrian. He briefly lost his job during the first round after allowing nine goals in four periods against Nashville, and allowed 21 goals in seven games against Anaheim. But he’s a Stanley Cup-winning goalie who tends to come up big when it matters the most —his brilliant efforts in a triple-overtime win and a double-overtime win against Anaheim are proof of that.
Lightning:At 6-7, Ben Bishop is an inch taller than Scott Darling, and at times looks like he’s filling the whole net. He came out of nowhere last year to be a Vezina finalist. He’s been all over the map this postseason, getting chased from the net by both Montreal and New York. But, like Crawford, he’s shown great mental toughness in bouncing back each time. Posting a pair of shutouts in Game 5 and 7 at Madison Square Garden is a remarkable feat. Bishop stopped 65 of 67 shots against the Hawks this season.
Blackhawks:Despite all the talent they have, often playing four future Hall of Famers at once, the Hawks’ power play has been a mess for years. A pair of power-play goals helped put the Ducks away in Game 7, but it’s too inconsistent to count on. A dynamite penalty-killing unit offset the power play in 2013, but this postseason, the Hawks have killed just 75.5 percent of opposing power plays.
Lightning:Like Alex Ovechkin, Stamkos makes a living one-timing power-play goals from the left circle. Tampa Bay is scoring on 22.2 percent of its power plays in the playoffs, after a 14th-ranked 18.8 percent clip during the regular season. The Lightning have posted better PK numbers than the Hawks in both the regular season and postseason, too, killing 81.2 so far in the playoffs.
Blackhawks:Joel Quenneville badly out-witted Bruce Boudreau in the conference final, leaving the home coach chasing matchups in Game 7 by immediately pulling off the Toews line after faceoff wins. Quenneville has coached 18 seasons in the NHL and has never missed the playoffs. He’s the third-winningest coach in NHL history, and is going after his third Stanley Cup in six seasons.
Lightning:Jon Cooper has proven a successful, if unorthodox, coach. His decision to use seven defensemen and 11 forwards has worked out, and his move of Stamkos from center to wing busted the star out of his scoring drought. Cooper won an AHL Calder Cup in 2012 and is one of the brightest young coaches in the league. All he’s missing is the experience.
PREDICTION: Back in October, I picked the Hawks to beat the Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final. Nothing has changed. The Lightning are fast, they’re skilled, and they’re entertaining to watch. But as the Ducks learned the hard way, the Hawks almost always find a way. HAWKS IN SIX.