Stanley Cup Final primer: Offense to star for Hawks, Lightning

NHL notebook: Blue Jackets acquire Saad in multi-player deal

The most obvious similarities evaluating the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning, high-end skill and speed, should make for one entertaining Stanley Cup Final.

The Blackhawks and Lightning are not defense-first, trap teams. They are high-flying skilled teams that can produce breathtaking plays, and have done so on a number of occasions in the postseason. That cannot be said of most recent finals, where defensive responsibility and opportunistic counter attacks — boring hockey — were the norm.

Not to say the combatants lack responsibility in their own ends, because they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t.

But with forward groups featuring the likes of Tampa’s ‘triplets’ line of center Tyler Johnson (playoff leading 12 goals and 21 points) and wingers Nikita Kucherov (nine goals, 19 points) and Ondrej Palat (seven goals, 15 points), along with captain and Steven Stamkos (seven goals, 17 points) and forward Alex Killorn (seven goals, 16 points) on one side, and Chicago’s recently united top line of winger Patrick Kane (10 goals, 20 points), center Jonathan Toews (nine goals, 18 points) and winger Brandon Saad (six goals, eight points) along with wingers Marian Hossa (four goals, 13 points) and Patrick Sharp (four goals, 12 points), there offense should not be in short supply.

Throw in two goaltenders — Chicago’s Corey Crawford and Tampa’s Ben Bishop — who struggled at times this postseason, and this has the potential to be an offensive classic.

The Blackhawks are the been-here-before team, winning Cups in 2010 and 2013 with this core, so the Lightning know it will be no small task, given their relative inexperience, to topple them.

“They’ve proven they can win at this time of the year,” Stamkos said. “They’re champions for a reason, so it’s going to be a big mountain for us to climb. But I think everyone in this room is willing to do it.”

Chicago also sees something special in the making with the Lightning.

“I think the thing that stands out to me is their team speed and their skill level up front,” Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said after Chicago won Game 7 of the Western finals against Anaheim on Saturday. “I remember playing them, I think it was in March, toward the end of the season, and they beat us pretty good. You know, I think as a team we’ve got a lot of respect for them. They’re there for a reason.”

Which is why the battle-tested Blackhawks are looking forward to the challenge of holding off the up-and-coming Lightning.

“I think we’re moving on for a reason, showing a lot of character, using our speed and skill,” said Keith, who has two goals and 16 assists while logging over 31 minutes of ice-time per game during the Blackhawks’ postseason run. “I don’t think anybody’s tired anymore this time of year right now. I think we’re just excited to move on and be able to beat a great team like Anaheim and have the opportunity to try and beat another great team in Tampa Bay.”

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

TAMPA’S TOP TWO LINES VS. CHICAGO’S TOP FOUR DEFENSEMAN: A lot has been written about the high-end skill of the top two lines of the Lightning, and the fact that the group scored 21 of 22 goals in the Eastern finals against the Rangers is impressive. But what does that say about the Tampa Bay bottom six? The top six will see a heavy dose of Chicago defensemen Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya. While Keith and Seabrook (six goals, four assists) are obviously the catalysts, Hjalmarsson and Oduya are solid complimentary pieces. The foursome, who are all averaging over 25 minutes per game, have the potential to shut down the top-heavy Lightning, and in the case of Keith and Seabrook, counter-punch them. That will put added pressure Tampa’s depth players to step up.

TOEWS LINE VS. JOHNSON LINE: Toews, one of the best two-way center’s in the game, and his linemates figure to draw the assignment against Tampa’s ‘triplets.’ The 2015 playoffs have been a coming-out party for the trio, Johnson in particular. The Toews’ matchup could be similar, defensively, to what the Lightning saw in the opening round against Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk and his linemates.

“There was absolutely no space, no speed,” Johnson said of facing Detroit. “I think that kind of taught us how to play. Using that against Montreal, then New York and just kind of doing that molded us into the team we are right now.”

As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense. If Chicago coach Joel Quenneville elects to keep game-breaker Kane on Toews’ wing, the ‘triplets’ might also have to do their fair share of defending, hence tempering their effectiveness over the course of a series. And with Chicago’s bottom six providing much more offense support so far in the playoffs, it adds even more pressure to the Lightning’s bottom six to keep pace.