(SportsNetwork.com) - After being stretched to the limit in their respective conference championships, the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning are ready to begin the battle for the NHL's ultimate prize.
The Lightning recently put the finishing touches on their first conference title in over a decade and they'll host the Blackhawks on Wednesday in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
Tampa Bay made its only trip to the Cup Finals in 2004, when it outlasted the Calgary Flames in seven games. The Bolts arrived at this spring's final round by winning a pair of Game 7s, including a 2-0 win over the Rangers in Friday's meeting in New York City. The Lightning also edged Detroit in seven games during the first round before beating Montreal in six.
The Blackhawks are coming off a seven-game series win over the Anaheim Ducks. Chicago faced elimination against the Ducks, falling behind 3-2 in the series before winning two straight, including the decisive Game 7 in Anaheim on Saturday. The Hawks outscored the Ducks by a combined 10-5 score over the final two games.
Chicago is four wins away from claiming its third Stanley Cup crown in six seasons. The Blackhawks won it all in 2010, when they lifted the Cup for the first time since 1961, and added another championship in 2013.
The Lightning survived the Rangers despite the fact that they had trouble containing New York's offense at times.
But, goaltender Ben Bishop and the Bolts proved themselves adept at righting the ship. Bishop was pulled from a 7-3 home loss to the Rangers in Game 6 after surrendering five goals only to rebound with a 22-save shutout to anchor the decisive victory of the series in New York City. It was Bishop's third shutout in his first NHL postseason. Two of them have come in the ultimate pressure situation, as he also managed to shut out Detroit in Game 7 of Tampa's opening-round victory.
"We still haven't accomplished anything yet," Bishop said after the Game 7 win. "We're four wins away. It's going to be probably the hardest four wins of all of our careers. We know there's a lot ahead of us."
As a whole, the 28-year-old American's initial foray into the Stanley Cup playoffs has gone very well. Bishop enters the final round with a .920 save percentage and a 2.15 goals against average. His three postseason shutouts are also one shy of the regular-season total he gained over 60 starts.
On most nights, Tampa's explosive offense helps make life a little easier for Bishop. The Bolts are averaging 2.75 goals per game through 20 postseason tilts. That's a solid clip, even if it is considerably less than Tampa's regular-season output of 3.16 GPG, which led the NHL.
Captain Steven Stamkos is the club's most recognizable face, but the star centerman has been overshadowed at times this spring by three guys who skate on another line.
Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, known collectively as "The Triplets," are technically Tampa's No. 2 line, but the unit has been second to nobody in the 2015 postseason.
Johnson, the group's speedy centerman, is leading the NHL playoffs in both goals (12) and points (21). Kucherov, meanwhile, is third in the league with 19 points on nine goals and 10 assists. Together, Johnson and Kucherov have produced seven game-winning goals for the Lightning this spring.
Palat has hardly been a slouch either, recording seven goals and eight assists from his right wing position.
Stamkos has made his career playing center, but head coach Jon Cooper has used the sniper more as a right wing as the playoffs have progressed. Whether he's skating down the middle of the ice or down the right side, he is one of the NHL's deadliest scorers.
Tampa's captain failed to find the net in the first eight games of this postseason, but has seven goals over his last 12 outings. Stamkos has 17 points (7G, 10A) this spring, setting a personal best for production in a single playoffs.
Although Tampa's defense struggled to contain the Rangers offense at certain junctures, the unit has been a reliable group for Cooper overall. The two most impressive guys are Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, the Swedish duo who form the club's superb top pairing. Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn make up a strong second pairing, while Matt Carle and Andrej Sustr are the third duo. Nikita Nesterov is usually the guy drawing into the lineup when Copper chooses to use seven defensemen, which has happened often this spring.
Chicago has experienced roster turnover from year to year while winning championships in 2010 and '13, but the club has been able to keep the most important pieces of the puzzle in the fold. That core group is led by captain Jonathan Toews, one of the league's best two-way players and arguably hockey's greatest leader. Toews is joined by fellow star forwards Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp and defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
Chicago's biggest strength lies in its forward depth, which can create serious matchup problems for opposing teams. Keith and Seabrook's offensive production from the back end only adds to the Blackhawks' firepower.
All told, the Hawks boast seven players with double digits in points during these playoffs. Fifteen different players have scored a goal and 12 of them have posted two goals or more. As a whole, the Blackhawks are averaging 3.29 goals per game this spring after notching 2.68 GPG during the regular season.
Kane is second to only Tampa's Johnson in scoring with 10 goals and 20 points while playing in three fewer games. Toews isn't far behind the speedy Kane, recording nine goals and nine assist over 17 postseason contests.
In addition to his star players, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville also can call upon a stable of steady forwards to get the job done. Playoff veterans like Bryan Bickell, Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette allow Quenneville to roll four capable lines at the opposition.
Toews (2010) and Kane (2013) won the Conn Smythe Trophy after Chicago's recent title runs, but if the Blackhawks win it all again this spring, it could be Keith's turn to claim the award.
Keith is leading all blueliners with 18 points (2G. 16A) and both of his goals have been of the game-winning variety. He also is sporting a plus-13 rating while averaging 31:35 of ice time per contests. Seabrook, meanwhile, has six goals and four assists from the back end. He leads all defensemen in goals this postseason.
After getting benched in the first round against Nashville, Corey Crawford, the club's goaltender from the 2013 title run, has regained a firm hold on the starting job. He supplanted Scott Darling before the end of the first round and hasn't let go since.
Following his monumental struggles against the Predators, Crawford is back to his old capable self and is sporting a 2.56 GAA and .919 save percentage in 14 games this spring.
The Lightning have defeated three Original Six teams (Detroit, Montreal and the Rangers) to reach this stage, becoming the first team in league history to beat three Original Six clubs in the same postseason. Of course, if Tampa can extend that record run against the NHL's oldest clubs it will get to celebrate a Cup title for the second time since entering the league as an expansion team back in 1992.
This series will mark the first playoff meeting between the Blackhawks and Bolts, but Tampa does have the upper hand in the recent regular-season history. The Lightning have taken six of the past seven encounters, with five of those meetings going beyond regulation.
Chicago and Tampa split two meetings in 2014-15. Each team claimed a victory on home ice, with the Blackhawks notching a 3-2 shootout win on Nov. 11 before the Lightning registered a 4-0 decision on Feb. 27. The loss in Tampa was the first game after Kane suffered a broken collarbone that sidelined him from the end of February until his return in Chicago's playoff opener.
Stamkos was the leading scorer in the season series, posting two goals and an assist over the two meetings versus the Blackhawks. Bishop started both games against Chicago and stopped 65-of-67 shots over the two games. He made 28 saves in the home shutout win over the visiting Hawks.
Crawford earned the shootout win with a 25-save performance on Nov. 11 before getting the night off when Chicago visited Amalie Arena in February.
Game 2 of this series is scheduled for Saturday night in Tampa.