There are no dynasties in the salary-cap era of the NHL, and should the Blackhawks beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final, they still won’t be one. Dynasties don’t cede their rule from time to time. But a third championship in six years would be an astonishing feat in this age of parity. Win or lose, you can call them the team of the decade, the gold standard of the cap era, the dominant franchise in the NHL.
A win would put them in rarefied air, though. Not since the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings of the 1990s and early 2000s has one core group won three Stanley Cups. The Hawks can do it, but it won’t be easy. It never is. Tampa Bay might be the next great franchise in the league — young, skilled, and just a little brash. Just like the Hawks were not too long ago.
Here are five X-factors that could determine whether the Hawks add to their remarkable legacy, or whether the Lightning start their own.
No experience necessary?
Noteworthy: The Hawks’ wealth of experience is well-documented by now. Their ability to withstand any blow and come back strong is unrivaled in the modern-day NHL. The Lightning? They have virtually no experience. Only Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman were on the 2011 Lightning team that reached the Eastern Conference final (though Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman reached the Final with the Rangers last season).
But having no experience can be better than having bad experience, which is what the Anaheim Ducks had (and sure enough, they coughed up another 3-2 series lead and lost another Game 7 at home). Patrick Kane famously said the Hawks were too “young and dumb” to feel the weight of the moment in 2010, and the Lightning have a similar feel to them. After beating arguably the two best goalies in the world — Montreal’s Carey Price and New York’s Henrik Lundqvist — in a row, it’s a safe bet Tampa Bay won’t shrink from the moment.
Quoteworthy:“You shine the light bright on our guys, and they’ll just put on sunglasses and walk right through it,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said following a 2-0 Game 7 victory at Madison Square Garden. “It’s unreal howthey respond.”
Nuke the nuclear option?
Noteworthy:In 2013, Joel Quenneville put Jonathan Toews and Kane on a line together in Game 4 against Los Angeles in the conference final, and it worked like gangbusters, snapping Kane out of a prolonged slump and springboarding him to the Conn Smythe. But when the Stanley Cup Final opened against Boston, Quenneville split them back up for three games, and the Hawks scored just one goal in Games 2 and 3 combined. He then reunited them again in Game 4. In that span, the Hawks went 5-0 with Toews and Kane on the same line, and 1-2 without them. So will Quenneville go back to his preferred lineup — Toews on the top line with Hossa, Kane on the second line with Brad Richards — to start this year’s Final? Or will he stick with his dynamic duo alongside Brandon Saad?
Matchups will surely be a factor; with Kane on that line, Toews’ role becomes more offensive and less about shutting down the opponent’s top line. If Quenneville wants Toews to slow down Stamkos or the Triplets, he might keep them apart. If Quenneville wants instant offense, though, he’ll keep them together. No matter what he does, he’s sure to be scrutinized for it.
Quoteworthy:“It’s nice having some flexibility and we still haven’t made up our mind yet,” Quenneville said.
Noteworthy:Few teams can match the top-end skill the Hawks boast at forward. But the Lightning can. Stamkos is maybe the best pure goal-scorer in the league, and the Triplets line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov has combined for 28 goals through three rounds. In theory, that offsets the Hawks’ big four of Toews, Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp. But the Hawks also have Saad. And Richards. And Teuvo Teravainen. And Antoine Vermette. And Andrew Shaw.
Alex Killorn (seven goals) has provided a big lift in the playoffs, but it’ll fall on the likes of Ryan Callahan (24 regular-season goals, one playoff goal) and Brian Boyle (15 regular-season goals, one playoff goal) to chip in and keep pace. This is unlikely to be a low-scoring series.
Quoteworthy:“They definitely have a lot of speed; you’re right on that,” Duncan Keith said. “They’ve got a lot of skill, too. They’re in the Final for a reason, so it’s gonna be a tough challenge.”
Noteworthy:Ben Bishop, even at 6-7, will not intimidate the Hawks, who have toppled the likes of Jonathan Quick, Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne and red-hot Devan Dubnyk in recent postseasons. Bishop is not quite in that category, despite being a Vezina finalist last season. He can be unbeatable on some nights, unwatchable on others. Against the Rangers, he posted shutouts at Madison Square Garden in Games 5 and 7. In Games 3, 4 and 6, though, he gave up five goals each night, getting yanked in Game 6 on home ice.
If the good Bishop shows up, he can steal a game, possibly a series. If the bad Bishop shows up, well, ask Frederik Andersen how quickly things can snowball in the wrong direction against the Hawks.
Quoteworthy:“Ben Bishop definitely covers a lot of net,” Toews said. “We just played against a really good goaltender who was playing really well who did the same — covered a lot of net and stopped everything that he saw. We’ve got to continue to do the old things we always talk about — traffic and that sort of stuff — and try and make things tough on him.”
The back end
Noteworthy:Everyone’s weary of the relentless discussion of the Hawks’ top four defensemen, and the incredible amount of minutes they’re playing. With a maximum of seven games left before a summer of rest, you can be sure Quenneville will keep riding Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya between 25 and 30 minutes a night. And the Lightning aren’t a physical team, so it shouldn’t be an issue.
But who will be the fifth and sixth defensemen? Will Quenneville stick with Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad? Their offensive instincts and puck-moving skills will be useful at one end in a freewheeling series, but their defensive inconsistency could be badly exploited by the speedy Lightning. Will Quenneville give Kimmo Timonen — the sentimental pick, chasing his first Stanley Cup in his last season — another opportunity, or will his lack of footspeed doom him against Tampa Bay? Or will Quenneville take a chance on rookie Trevor van Riemsdyk, who’s making the trip to Tampa but who has played just eight AHL games since Nov. 16?
Keith can’t play all 60 minutes. So even if their ice time is limited, the bottom two defensemen could still make or break a shift, a game, a series. It’s no easy call, but in another long series against another great team, it’s a big one.
Quoteworthy: “It’s a whole team game,” Keith said. “You can’t get this far without having a team game. It’s not one or two guys; it’s everybody. Everybody, when they’re out on the ice, are all committed to doing the right thing and playing the right way.”