I was able to catch up with Jonathan Willis of the Bleacher Report, Sportsnet, Oilers Nation, and the Edmonton Journal (when does this guy sleep?) just a few hours ahead of the NHL Draft. The Oilers are on the clock, what trades are in the works, and what will happen now that the league has opened the bidding process for expansion? IS MILWAUKEE IN THE MIX?
The Chicago Blackhawks are Stanley Cup Champions for the third time in six years. Are they a dynasty? Plus, the Lightning will be back, the NHL Awards and General Manager meetings are underway in Las Vegas, and there may be some new rule changes for the 2015-16 NHL season. We cover it all in the latest podcast. (Link Below)
It took 60 full days for a Stanley Cup Champion to be crowned in the NHL, and when the dust settles the Chicago Blackhawks are the 2014-15 Stanley Cup Champions. It is the third time in the last six years that the Blackhawks have won the Cup, making their achievement in the salary cap era that much more impressive.
First, the Tampa Bay Lightning come up short in Game 6 after an incredible run through the Playoffs which saw them knockout the likes of the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, and New York Rangers. Ben Bishop, after the Game 6 loss, disclosed that he suffered a torn groin in Game 2 on a save on Brad Richards. Bishop was visibly injured in Game 3, which the Lightning won, but missed Game 4 completely, yet still put up fantastic performances in both Game 5 and Game 6 in losing efforts. A tap of the stick to him for playing through such a painful injury, and playing well. Another injury hindered star for the Lightning was Tyler Johnson. Johnson was the leading point scorer throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs heading into the Finals and finished with 23 points, tied with Chicago's Patrick Kane. Johnson was moved from his center position to the wing early in the series, and after the Game 6 loss announced he had played the entire series with a broken right wrist. Taking Johnson out of the faceoff circle was a move to protect that wrist, in hind-sight, but moved Johnson from his natural position and he did not look the same. A hats off to the Tampa Bay squad, I foresee more chances at the Cup for this young Lightning core of players.
Real quick here, this is from the Finals Preview article - Prediction: Chicago over Tampa Bay 4-2
For the Blackhawks, it's a familiar story; the core group of players stand tall when the lights are brightest and close the door when they have the chance. Under Head Coach Joel Quenneville, the Blackhawks are 10-0 in a Game 6 when leading a series 3-2. That's called finishing. To start the NHL Playoffs this year, it looked as if Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford may not be the man in the net for Chicago as he was pulled from Game 1 in the opening round against Nashville, got shelled for six goals in Game 2, then sat the bench in Games 3, 4, and 5. But, as it seems fitting for the under-valued Crawford's career, he would get a second chance in net for Game 6 and would shut the door on the Predators and the Blackhawks would comeback for the win. Follow that series with a four game sweep of the Minnesota Wild, and then seven games against the Anaheim Ducks in which Crawford had to stand on his head many times to get the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup Final. He was fantastic in the final and, in my opinion, could have been the Conn Smythe winner for Playoffs MVP.
But the man who DID win the Conn Smythe, Duncan Keith, was far and wide the deserving winner. The amount of hockey Keith played during the playoffs was other worldly as he played the 4th most ice-time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, being on the ice for 48% of the total game time for the Blackhawks run all the way from Game 1 against Nashville to Game 6 of the Final in Chicago. Keith is the 9th defenseman to win the Conn Smythe, the last being Scott Niedermayer for the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. Keith cements his place in the NHL Hall of Fame, in my eyes at least, as he is a two-time Norris Trophy winner as the NHL's best defenseman, a two-time Olympic Champion, and three-time Stanley Cup winner. The number 2 will never be worn again for the Blackhawks once Keith hangs up the skates.
Aside from the likes of Keith, Patrick Kane, and Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks got heroic moments from their role players and fresh faces throughout their championship run. For one, trade deadline acquisition Antoine Vermette scored four goals in the playoffs, three of which were game-winning goals. Andrew Desjardins, another trade deadline acquisition for Chicago, played on the fourth line with Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger in one of the most impressive performances by a fourth line that has been seen in recent years. I constantly found myself saying, "How is it that Kruger, Shaw, and Desjardins always have the better offensive chances?" It was the energy line for Chicago and played a big role in keeping the Lightning's triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat in-check. With Michal Rosival going down with a fractured ankle, the defense of the Blackhawks turned to young players like Kyle Cuminsky, David Rundblad, and Trevor van Riemsdyk who all played meaningful minutes alongside Kimmo Timonen, another deadline acquisition for Chicago, to help out the big four defenders on Chicago's blue-line. Timonen has played 17 NHL seasons, mostly in Philadelphia and Nashville, but will retire as a Stanley Cup Champion with the Blackhawks. Brad Richards signed a one year deal with the Blackhawks after being bought out of a huge contract with the New York Rangers, and played a major role both on the win and in the center for Chicago and is rewarded with lifting his second Stanley Cup, the first coming in 2004 when he played for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
There is so, so much more I want to say about the Stanley Cup Finals, and Playoffs in general, so be on the lookout for the next installment of the Empty Net Hockey Podcast wrapping up the playoffs.
But I will leave you with this, Jonathan Toews is a three-time Stanley Cup Champion, two-time Olympic Champion, a Conn Smythe winner in 2010, and a Selke Trophy winner (Best Defensive Forward) in 2013 all happening before his 28th birthday. Can you think of another NHL player with that many accolades that fast? Incredible.
After six and a half weeks of playoff hockey, the NHL has their final two teams set for the Stanley Cup Finals. The Chicago Blackhawks will face the Tampa Bay Lightning beginning on Wednesday, June 3rd in Tampa Bay. This is the third trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in six seasons for the Blackhawks and their 12th trip to the Finals in franchise history, having won five Cups total. For the Lightning, this is the second trip to the Finals in franchise history having won the Stanley Cup in their only other trip in 2004 defeating the Calgary Flames in seven games. This matchup could be split right down the middle when it comes down to it as these two teams mirror each other in almost all facets of the game and that has the makings of a GREAT series.
But first... Third Round Predictions - How Did I Do? (Bold = Correct / Strike through = Wrong)
Eastern Conference: Tampa Bay over New York 4-2 (4-3) Western Conference:Chicago over Anaheim 4-2 (4-3)
Again, I hate to toot my own horn...But come on now...TOOT TOOT - 13/14 Picking the team to win the series and 5/14 picking the series length. Not bad. Ok, enough about me, LET'S PLAY SOME HOCKEY!
Stanley Cup Finals - Chicago Blackhawks vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning are taking a page right out of the book of Randy Orton's early career when he took on the persona of the "Legend Killer." First they eliminate the Detroit Red Wings in seven games in round 1, then upset the Montreal Canadiens in round 2, and finally deny the New York Rangers back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup Finals after a seven game series win. That's three powerhouses from the NHL's Original Six teams. Now they'll try to win their second Cup in team history by attempting to bring down their fourth "O6" team, the Chicago Blackhawks. (Not mentioned "O6" teams: Boston and Toronto) The Blackhawks on the other hand are coming into the Cup Finals after coming back from a 3-2 Western Conference Final series deficit, dispatching the likes of the Anaheim Ducks in seven games along with a sweep of the Minnesota Wild, and a thrilling opening round with the Nashville Predators. Chicago has faced three teams that match speed and physicality equally well and have persevered to their third Cup Final in six seasons.
The Lightning are riding their hot offensive talent through these playoffs with three of the top ten point scorers in the playoffs, and five of the top ten goal scorers through the playoffs. The Blackhawks have their share of scoring power as well, led by none other than their star duo of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, along with Conn Smythe dark-horse Duncan Keith. Between the pipes, Corey Crawford at one point in the playoffs didn't look like he would see the ice past Game 2 of the Nashville series, now he will start in net for his second Stanley Cup Final series. While in the crease for Tampa Bay is the towering Ben Bishop, who has the better stats of the remaining two goalies posting a 2.15 Goals Against Average and a 92% save percentage, as well as a playoff high three shutouts.
This series is almost too tight to call, let's split these very similar teams apart and find a winner.
Forwards - When it comes to scoring power, this series does not disappoint. As stated before, there are six of the top ten scorers ion the playoffs in this series and the stars couldn't be shining brighter coming into these final few days. For Tampa Bay, Tyler Johnson has become a star and a top scoring threat in the blink of an eye. When his opening round break out happened, I fully expected him to return to Earth and for Steven Stamkos to reclaim his spot as the top threat for the Lightning. I was wrong because not only has Johnson continued his impressive post-season, but Stamkos may not even be the second scoring threat on this Lightning team. Johnson is taking his linemates along with him on this scoring ride as Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov have become household names in these playoffs. Facing a depleted Blackhawks blue-line, the Tampa Bay offense has the potential to out-chance Chicago at will. For the Blackhawks, what more do you have to say about this sentence: "Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane play on the same line." Usually the duo play in separate line pairings, but Blackhawks Head Coach Joel Quenneville made the change while searching for more offensive production trailing the Ducks 3-2 heading into Game 6 and it paid off nicely, they're in the Cup Finals. Outside of that you can rattle off the scoring threats for Chicago like a who's who of power players - Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad, and Duncan Keith to name a few. Yes, I have a defenseman in the conversation for scoring forwards for Chicago because hehas been THAT important to their offense. If he continues to "Quarterback" the offensive push for Chicago, he may add a Conn Smythe to his mantle as well as another Cup.
EDGE: Slightly for Chicago
Defense - You don't have to be a hockey guru to understand that this is where the Blackhawks weakness lays. As much as Duncan Keith has been driving force for Chicago, he is only one man. Brent Seabrook's playing at a high level as well, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson are playing defensively sound, but it's the fifth and sixth defenders that have been much of the talk as to why Chicago may not hoist the Cup. Michal Rosival and Kimmo Timmonen began these playoffs at the back-end of the blue-line, and now it will be David Rundblad and Kyle Cuminskey holding their own. Rosvial out with an ankle injury and Timmonen, god bless him, he gave all he could. But a 40-year old NHL player who had to miss a season and a half because of life-threatening blood clots could only do so much. As long as Rundblad and Cuminskey can eat minutes without making costly mistakes, the Blackhawks could be finding some defenders of the future. For Tampa Bay, defense is not a worry what-so-ever. Led by Viktor Hedman and Anton Stralman, the Lightning use seven defenders to balance minutes and balance their heavy-checking of Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn with their offensive attack from Hedman and Stralman. Rotating in Nikita Nesterov, Matthew Carle, and Andrej Sustr help the Lightning keep the minutes down and their top guys fresh, a problem the Blackhawks will have to face in the Cup Finals. EDGE: Tampa Bay
Goaltending - Another evenly matched category if you start watching the Playoffs from the second half of the Nashville-Chicago series up to now. Corey Crawford, who has a Stanley Cup to his name, has become the goat for man Blackhawks fans as he was almost benched for good infavor of backup Scott Darling. Since then, he has returned triumphantly to the chants of "Cor-ey! Cor-ey!" at the United Center, swept the Wild, and held strong enough in Games 6 and 7 to comeback and eliminate the Ducks. Crawford posts a 2.56 GAA and a save percentage of 91.9% heading into the Finals. If he can keep the form he has shown in the Minnesota series and in the final two games of the Western Conference Final, he could lift a second Cup. Standing in the way of that, and standing tall between the pipes for Tampa Bay is Ben Bishop. The man backstopping the Lightning's road to the Cup Finals is attempting to do something I think no other goalie has done before in knocking out four of the Original Six teams on the way to lifting a Stanley Cup. Bishop, as well as Crawford, have been susceptible to giving up big games in these playoffs, but both have shown the ability to bounce back. With the offensive power the Lightning have, Bishop may have to be just 'ok' to get his hands on the Cup. EDGE: Slightly for Chicago
Special Teams - Tampa Bay has the fifth best power play in all of these Playoffs with a 22.2% success rate, while Chicago posts a 19.6% success rate, good for seventh best in the Playoffs. On the flip-side, Tampa Bay posts an 81.2% Penalty Kill percentage which ranks them eighth in the Playoffs and Chicago has a 75.5 % Penalty Kill percentage, good for 11th in the Playoffs. Chicago's best strategy for penalty killing will be to stay out of the penalty box all together. Tampa Bay's dangerous on the power play and a depleted defense may be too much for the Blackhawks penalty killers. EDGE: Slightly for Tampa Bay
Coaching - Jon Cooper took the reigns from Guy Boucher in 2013's shortened season as the Lightning failed to reach the playoffs. In two seasons, Cooper has led Tampa Bay to two 100+ point regular seasons, two playoff appearances, and now a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. Not a bad start for Cooper, who had no other prior head coaching experience. On the other side of the glass will be Joel Quenneville, who has been a head coach in the NHL since 1996. He has coached 198 Playoff games, so far, and has 111 career playoff wins, so far. Both are the highest marks among active Head Coaches in the NHL. Oh, and he has those two Stanley Cup rings to his name as well. EDGE: Chicago
Experience Factor - As mentioned prior, this is Jon Cooper's first rodeo passed the first round of the NHL Playoffs as a coach and for much of this Tampa Bay Lightning team, this is their first taste of long, grueling playoff hockey. For Chicago... do I have to mention it again? Third Stanley Cup Final appearance in the last six seasons. Most of this Blackhawks roster has at least one, if not two Stanley Cup rings from the past six years as well, and Joel Quenneville is coaching them. It is possible for Tampa Bay to get caught up in the moment, Chicago has been here and done this before. EDGE: Chicago
Prediction - Chicago has played A LOT of hockey these last few years and it bodes for them well when it comes to the mental part of the game. Physically, they may be beaten up from the prior three series', but now they face a Lightning team that likes to play a more open-ended game that fits the Blackhawks style. Tampa Bay will not be an easy out, no team that makes a Cup Final is. But these are the Blackhawks, a modern day dynasty, and they lift the Stanley Cup at home. Chicago over Tampa Bay 4-2
My Eight Conn Smythe Candidates -
1) Tyler Johnson, C - Tampa Bay
2) Jonathan Toews, C - Chicago
3) Patrick Kane, RW - Chicago
4) Steven Stamkos, C - Tampa Bay
5) Duncan Keith, D - Chicago
6) Ben Bishop, G - Tampa Bay
7) Nikita Kucherov, RW - Tampa Bay
8) Corey Crawford, G - Chicago
Two Games into both the Western and Eastern Conferene Finals in the NHL Playoffs, I am happy to be joined by Eddie Garcia, NHL Reporter for Fox Sports Radio, to discuss the opening storylines of the NHL Playoffs 'Final Four.' Also, Detroit Red Wings Head Coach Mike Babcock has been made a few offers, where will he coach next?