3 Reasons Why the Tampa Bay Lightning Will Win the Stanley Cup
The Tampa Bay Lightning were a preseason pick to do damage in the Eastern Conference and represent the conference in the Stanley Cup Final. Led by elite scorer Steven Stamkos, a maturing and stable blueline, and the emergence of prospects such as Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay is in a spot to win this season’s Stanley Cup Final.
As of right now, our algorithms see the series as nearly a coin flip, but the Lightning are favored at 50.4%.
How will the Lightning be able to use that slight advantage in their favor?
1. Forward Depth
The forward depth on Tampa is one of the best -- if not the best -- in the NHL. Their forwards accounted for 141 of their 175 goals scored at even strength in the regular season (82%), slightly below the offensive juggernaut that the Blackhawks have assembled (84%).
The advantage that Tampa Bay can claim is youth, as the average age of Tampa Bay’s forwards is 25.73 years. Chicago averages out at 27.05. It is not a huge discrepancy, but the older players on Chicago have seen their fair share of extra games played in the postseason over their extensive run dating back to 2009.
Johnson has been nothing short of amazing during the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs. His emergence as a trusted scoring option has opened up play for Stamkos, the unquestioned number-one scorer on Tampa Bay. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has those two playing on separate lines much in the way that Blackhawks bench boss Joel Quenneville splits up Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
That split gives the Lightning more scoring on more lines and offers other players the ability to take advantage of two of the better scorers during the 2014-15 season. The top six forwards' assignments are enough to make any head coach sweat. Johnson has been centering Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov while Stamkos has been playing right wing with healthy center Valtteri Filppula and fellow winger Alex Killorn.
The bottom six consists of a solid mix of two-way players led by Brian Boyle and Ryan Callahan. The two started 36 and 32 percent of their draws in the defensive zone, with Boyle’s percentage tops on the team amongst forwards. Callahan has an offensive touch to his game, but with the depth that Tampa Bay has and his lack of scoring in the playoffs (4 points in 19 games), he is being utilized a bit differently for now to help maintain constant puck control on the fourth best possession team at even strength during the regular season (53.0 Corsi For percentage). Having that experience makes it easier to roll four lines constantly, a must for a deep playoff run.
The Lightning power play also showcases their forward depth. Their man advantage has scored on 22.2% of their chances, good for fourth in the postseason. Much like Anaheim would have to do to topple Chicago, Tampa Bay has to make the Hawks pay one man down. Chicago’s special team performance has been their weakness in the playoffs. Their penalty kill has stopped 75.5% of the opponent’s power plays, 11th overall.
The skating ability and scoring depth of Tampa Bay should make for a lot of back-and-forth action on the ice, something Chicago has not seen a lot of this postseason from their opponents.
2. Scoring By the Defense
The defensive corps has been able to add a little scoring to make up for the lack of a true shutdown defenseman. As a whole, Tampa Bay’s defensive corps is running six-deep farther into games than Chicago, who has been depending on their top four of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya -- all seeing well over 20 minutes per game.
The emergence of Victor Hedman on the blueline has been one of the better stories this postseason. Jason Garrison, Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn and Anton Stralman are known quantities on defense, but injuries and inconsistencies have slowed the progress of Hedman, who is still only 24 and playing in his sixth season. He was third among Lightning defensemen in Corsi For and helps anchor an even group.
That bend-but-don’t break group will be facing its toughest test against the Blackhawks. If Tampa is to win this Stanley Cup, the defensive corps will have to make life easier for the next person.
3. Clutch Goaltending
Ben Bishop has had some of his best games of the season when it mattered in the playoffs. His 12 wins and three shutouts pace all goaltenders this postseason with two of those goose eggs closing out series in Game 7’s, an NHL-first for a goalie in his first two Game 7’s.
Bishop did have a few leaky games against the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final, all Rangers wins. Bishop allowed five goals three separate times in the conference finals, two in losses. What did he do the following game after each of those losses? Pitch two shutouts.
We delved into why Bishop was going to need to be the driving force for Tampa Bay prior to the postseason, and save face for those few games, Bishop has been the goalie he’s needed to be. Good, timely goaltending goes a long way in the playoffs, and if Bishop can continue to show mental toughness in the face of adversity, Tampa Bay will be in good shape.
Claiming the Cup?
Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman will be playing in their second Stanley Cup Final in as many seasons. Those two along with Ryan Callahan got to enjoy taking out their former team in the Eastern Conference Final, but can they help the Lightning get over the hump and win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2004?
The Tampa Bay Lightning have been able to balance an elite scoring threat with team defense and timely goaltending for much of the 2014-15 season. In the face of adversity during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the team played their best hockey. If that continued balanced attack can somehow keep Chicago in check more often than not and Ben Bishop puts on an All-Star performance against one of the most-feared teams in recent NHL history, then things will look even sunnier in Florida than usual.