Monday, June 1, 2015

Three Rounds In

Some thoughts about the Stanley Cup Playoffs, now that the first three rounds are in the books and we are down to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackwaks duking it out for the most hallowed trophy in all of sports:

About those predictions
I don't mean to toot my own horn, but back on April 15th, before the playoffs started, I wrote that "whoever wins the first round series between Nashville and Chicago will go on to represent the Western Conference in the SCF." In that same post, I wrote that "this year's champion will come from the East."

The first of those predictions has come true, and now that we know this year's Eastern Conference representative is my very own Tampa Bay Lightning, I am desperately hoping the second one comes true as well -- and, I am nervously remembering that plenty of the other things I wrote in that April 15th post have since, shall we say, turned out to have been less than spot on.

Finally, since my status as a Lightning partisan has never been a secret, let me affirm that the rest of today's post will be written objectively.

Who to pull for
Obviously, I think everyone outside of the Windy City should be cheering for the Lightning. However, in the interest of that objectivity I just mentioned, here are some legitimate reasons to pull for either team:

Chicago -- Dynasty. Everyone claims to hate dynasties, but they inject more good than bad into the sporting world and we rarely see them anymore. If the Blackhawks prevail, this will be their third Stanley Cup in six seasons and all of them will have been won with the same core of stars and same head coach. It would make them the closest we have seen to an NHL dynasty since the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980's... Also, it would mean that Joel Quenneville has three times as many Stanley Cups as Mike Babcock... And, it would mean that classy, aging veterans Brad Richards and Marian Hossa get their names carved on the Cup another time while they are still playing the game as good as the whippersnappers who surround them.

Tampa Bay -- Underdog. We North Americans (I'm talking hockey here, people) have it in our DNA to pull for the little guy who is just as good as everyone else but never gets his due respect. The fact that the Lightning are considered long shots to beat the Blackhawks, despite having a better record and having gone 1-0-1 against them this season, shows they fit that mold... Plus, a Lightning victory would mean that Jon Cooper has just as many Stanley Cups as Mike Babcock despite coaching barely more than two seasons in the NHL... And, it would mean that the Lightning won it all by knocking off four Original Six teams on their march through the postseason.

Nice things about this match-up
These teams have more quality depth at the forward positions than any of the NHL's other 28 franchises.

Chicago has gotten more points during the playoffs from its third and fourth lines than Tampa Bay has from its third and fourth; however, Tampa Bay's top two lines have been the best top two in the league during the playoffs.

Both teams advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals by winning Game Sevens, on the road, versus the top-seeded team in their respective conferences.

This match-up features the postseason's top two points producers (Tampa Bay's Tyler Johnson with 21 and Chicago's Patrick Kane with 20)... Taking that matter further, it also features three of the top five; four of the top six; and six of the top ten... And as for that "six of the top ten" thing, the six are divided evenly with three from each team.

When it comes to defense, Chicago's Duncan Keith is 31 years old, still in his prime, and probably the best all-around defenseman in the league... Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman is 24 years old, just entering his prime, and probably the best play-making defenseman in the league.

The Lightning have the NHL's #1 offense and the Blackhawks have the NHL's #2 defense, so we get a chance to see a few cliches put to the test, like "defense wins championships" and "a good defense beats a good offense" ... But then again, maybe we don't really get to see them put to the test, since Tampa Bay also plays sound team D and Chicago is dripping with otherworldly offensive talent.

The Goaltenders
It often comes down to goaltending, so it's interesting that Corey Crawford and Ben Bishop are still considered question marks of sorts.

Crawford has a Stanley Cup to his name, yet has never been thought of as one of the elites at his position. Earlier in these playoffs he surrendered so many goals that he was benched in favor of a recovering alcoholic who is playing his first year in the league. Plenty of fans agitated for Crawford to remain on the pine, but eventually he got another chance; proved his doubters wrong; regained his starting role; and went on to perform lights-out in the Western Conference Finals.

Ben Bishop was a Vezina finalist last season and backstopped 40 victories this season, yet few national commentators talked about him as a strength coming into the playoffs... When it comes to his performance in the Eastern Conference Finals, you can make a thumbs down argument by saying that he gave up five goals in three of the last five games; or you can make a thumbs up argument by saying that in two of the last three, he shut out the team which had the best record in the NHL. Either way you would be right... Although I criticized Bishop on Facebook when he surrendered some goals that I thought the likes of Patrick Roy would have stopped, it's a simple fact that he outdueled Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist in back to back series. It's also a fact that he has pitched shutouts in two Game Sevens during this single postseason, which puts him in high cotton because only two other goalies in history have done the same: Patrick Roy and Tim Thomas.

Looking at their numbers side by side, Bishop's save percentage during these playoffs is .920 while Crawford's is .919... Bishop's goals-against average is 2.15 while Crawford's is 2.56... As noted above, they both prevailed in the conference finals by winning Game Sevens on the road against the top-seeded team in their conference... Bishop has three shutouts while Crawford has one, with Bishop's most recent shutout serving to end one of the most legendary streaks in sports (the one in which the New York Rangers have had never lost a Game Seven on home ice in their 89-year history)... And here is a weird stat: Bishop recorded three assists during the Eastern Conference Finals, including one on Ondrej Palat's third period goal that put Game Seven on ice by making the score 2-0.

When it comes to skaters the Chicago Blackhawks might have an edge over the Tampa Bay Lightning, but when it comes to goaltending, the Lightning appear to have an edge.

As noted in the first section of this post, I already made a prediction back when we didn't know who the Eastern Conference representative would be... On principle, I refuse to change it... Emotionally, I am terrified about not changing it because I am not 100% certain that jinxes aren't real... But what the hell:  Go Bolts!

I am a bit of an outlier amongst my fellow Americans, in that I have never believed New York sports fans are assholes. On Friday they proved me right, and I have to give props to Rangers fans for the way they reacted after the Lightning eliminated their team last Friday.

Rather than disparage the Rangers for not delivering the Stanley Cup to Manhattan when they were expected to do so -- and rather than boo the visiting Lightning that had just vanquished their team on its own ice -- the faithful who remained in the building saluted their netminder by chanting "Henrik! Henrik!" It was a magnanimous move if ever I have seen one. Henrik Lundqvist played one helluva game with little support from his forward lines and no support from anyone when it came to putting points on the board.

Lundvist cannot be expected to pitch a shutout just to get a tie. He cannot be made solely responsible for an entire team's success and an entire city's satisfaction. Yes, goaltenders willingly take on a disproportionate share of the credit and blame for their team's successes and failures. Still, they should not be looked upon to do everything in a team sport. The New Yorkers in Madison Square Garden on Friday knew that. They recognized what a valiant effort Lundqvist put up, and they made sure he knew they recognized it. It was a class act done by a fan base to support a class act of a player, and it deserves to be acknowledged.

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