Wednesday, June 3, 2015

2014-15 NHL Stanley Cup Final Preview

And so we've here, in June, getting ready to cap off a tremendous NHL postseason with a Stanley Cup Final pitting the Tampa Bay Lightning - the most potent offense in the league - against the Chicago Blackhawks, winners of two of the previous five Cups; the hungry kids against the established veterans; my third favourite goalie (Ben Bishop) against my second (Corey Crawford).

Back before the season started, I'd predicted a Final between the New York Islanders and Los Angeles Kings - so I was dead wrong, seeing as the Isles lost in the first round and the Kings - the reigning champions, no less - didn't even make it to the playoffs.

I predicted Bishop would win the Vezina Trophy as the best goalie in the league (he won't, but he's had spells this postseason that shows he eventually might), and his three shutouts so far have come at important times - two of them in decisive Game Sevens. Crawford's been no slouch, the best and most valuable player on his team not named Duncan Keith in perhaps 8 of their 12 wins thus far, but he was more than shaky in the first round, even losing his starting role for a couple of games.

So the secondary story will definitely be how the goalies fare in this one, and perhaps one of them will raise the elusive Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, but the two heavy favourites remain Keith - who has played in more than half of available minutes for the Hawks, seemingly getting stronger with each passing game instead of growing tired, shutting down the opposition's top lines - versus Tyler Johnson, the tiny dynamo who centers the Bolts' ''second line'' better than anyone centered a top line since the end of the regular season. He leads the league in goals, he's been a part of half his team's goals, he's been the dominant force in the East on his own.

Tampa holds home-ice advantage, but they're 5-5 at home compared to 7-3 on the road in these playoffs, and the Hawks have a tendency to win games in the third period, so I'd advise folks who aren't into watching the whole games to tune in around 9:30 (Eastern) and see where it leads. But anyone else will get to see some of the most exciting hockey played by some of the most dedicated and unstoppable players, with the Hawks' Jonathan Toews (''Captain Serious'') and Patrick Kane (''Showtime'') at the forefront, and the entire Chicago team knowing it's their last chance at winning together as part of this quasi-dynasty team before off-season contract restructurings force GM Stan Bowman to make some painful changes (i.e. get rid of roughly $15M in salary to fit under a cap that hasn't increased enough to his liking). And on the other side, captain Steven Stamkos (the second-best shooter in the world) and Victor Hedman (perhaps a Norris Trophy winner some day) both looking for their first taste of the Silver Chalice.

Quality hockey to lead into a potentially hot summer - nothing would suit me more.

Hawks in 6.

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