And then there were two. After more than a month of grueling playoff hockey, only two teams remain in the hunt for hockey’s Holy Grail. The Tampa Bay Lightning will take on the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals in what should be an exciting, fast-paced series. Let’s start by breaking down each team’s path in the playoffs so far.

The Lightning came out of the Eastern Conference after battling three tough teams, all of them having more playoff experience than Tampa. They beat the Detroit Red Wings in seven, the Montreal Canadiens in six and the defending Eastern Conference champs, the New York Rangers, in seven. The Lightning were resilient as they faced elimination in two of their series, relying on a well-balanced offensive attack, solid defense and mostly solid goaltending from Ben Bishop.

The Blackhawks, on the other hand, have emerged as the best team in the Western Conference for the third time in six years, winning the Stanley Cup in their previous two trips. This year they beat the Nashville Predators in six, swept the Minnesota Wild in four and pulled out a grueling series win in seven games against the tough Anaheim Ducks. Similar to Tampa Bay, Chicago advanced this far thanks to scoring contributions from players on offense and defense, despite some mediocre outings from goaltender Corey Crawford.

Overall the balance of the forwards on each team is just about even. Both teams have a few stars who carry the goal-scoring load but also receive contributions from their depth players. The biggest offensive contributors on the Lightning, such as Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat all played big roles in helping Tampa end the regular season with the most goals as a team.

While Chicago was middle-of-the-pack this season in the goal scoring category, they were without one of their best players, Patrick Kane, for a sizeable portion of the season. He’ll look to neutralize Tampa’s offensive output along with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa. The Hawks offense is slightly more well-rounded, but the Lightning are the bigger offensive threat with slightly more starpower overall.

On defense Victor Hedman has looked like a monster this postseason for Tampa Bay. The huge Swede is faster than he looks, has a heavy shot and has notably evolved his defensive game. Former Ranger Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison have also helped  create a formidable blueline for Tampa that has the potential to score.

Where would Chicago be without their own defensive gurus Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson these past few years? They likely would not have won either Stanley Cup because that’s how vital these three are to the Blackhawks. Keith and Seabrook are well-rounded defensemen who can shut the opposition down as well as put the puck in the net, and Hjalmarsson is a solid defensive stud. They’ll have their work cut out for them with the strong offensive output of the Lightning, but they should be able to soften the blow. The edge on defense goes to the Blackhawks.

Goaltenders Bishop for the Lightning and Crawford for the Blackhawks have looked very good at times, and very bad at times. So for both teams, it’s a question of which version of their goaltenders will show up, making who has the edge in this area tough to predict. Last year’s Stanley Cup Finals showed us that the goaltender having the better postseason en route to the final showdown doesn’t exactly mean much, as Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings outdueled Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist despite struggling at times in the previous three rounds. Over the course of this postseason, Bishop has put up superior numbers, allowing only five more goals in six more games than Crawford. Crawford had the better regular season than Bishop, but the two put up relatively similar career numbers. The Blackhawks may have a slight advantage in net on the basis that Crawford won the Stanley Cup with them in 2013, but anything can happen between the pipes this series, which is what it may very well come down to.

Tampa Bay should have the advantage in special teams. In the playoffs they’ve been slightly better than Chicago on both the power play and the penalty kill. The Lightning have also been shorthanded 20 more times than Chicago has in the postseason. The Lightning need to stay out of the penalty box if they want to avoid the Blackhawks scoring any game or series-changing goals while Tampa is down a man.

The Blackhawks figure to have an advantage on the bench. Coach Joel Quenneville helped lead Chicago to their two most recent Stanley Cups in 2010 and 2013, as well as reaching the Western Conference Finals two other years since taking control of the helm in the 2008-2009 season. Jon Cooper on the other hand for the Lightning, has been impressive behind the bench as well in his second full year as coach of the Lightning.

Cooper has led Tampa to play with an interesting style, basically throwing around two different looks on the ice that vary game-to-game. Viewers will eithersee an offensive approach where the Lightning fire on all cylinders and transition quickly, sacrificing defense or offense, or playing a more steady defensive game and capitalizing on their opponents’ mistakes. As evident against the Rangers, the latter strategy seemed to work better, as the Rangers took advantage of Tampa’s lack of defense most of the games they played that style. Props must be given to Cooper for adjusting in Game 7 of that series though, when the Lightning played defensively responsible again and shut the Rangers out in New York, 2-0.

To have the best shot at beating the Blackhawks, Cooper should choose the defensive approach and only change it up if Chicagowins the first couple of games in Tampa Bay.

There is the home-ice factor as well. As both teams finished with more points and a higher seed, Tampa Bay will start the series at home and will potentially play four out of the seven games there. Normally this would be a sizeable advantage, but the Lightning have looked rather beatable at home this postseason, as the Rangers showcased by winning two out of three games on the road last series. Tampa is 5-5 on home ice this postseason overall, while going 7-5 on the road. The problem with that is  Chicago has looked dominant on their home ice, going 7-1 during the playoffs as well as 5-4 on the road.

The areas where each team holds an advantage over one another is fairly minimal, which should make for a close series where anything can happen. Both teams have bright futures ahead of them as well, especially the younger Lightning. While most of the different aspects of the teams are close to even, Chicago holds a significant advantage in experience, discipline, and dominance on home ice. Most of their players are veterans in their prime and have been with the team for one or both of their recent Stanley Cups. While very talented, the Lightning are a younger and more inexperienced team that will likely win the Stanley Cup once their youngsters hit their prime. This series can go either way. I’ll stick with the prediction I made before the playoffs started:
Blackhawks win series 4-2

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