The road to winning this year’s Stanley Cup got a lot more difficult for the Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday night. First, Ben Bishop and Victor Hedman ran into each other and essentially handed the Chicago Blackhawks their first goal. And then, after Tampa rallied to tie it, Antoine Vermette notched the deciding tally for Chicago, his third game-winner of these playoffs.
Suddenly, the Lightning need to go into the Blackhawks’ building and win on Monday night just to keep the season going. And they’ll need to knock Chicago off in back-to-back contests to end the year if they plan on hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2015. In case you were wondering, the ‘Hawks have lost back-to-back games exactly one time this entire postseason.
So is it impossible? Well, no. the Lightning are a very good hockey team with a lot of talent and have already proven to be quite resilient. They don’t ever seem overwhelmed by the moment, though a Game 6 in the Windy City where Joel Queneville’s squad will have a chance to win the Cup on their own home ice for the first time in a very long time is certainly going to test their mettle.
Even if the Lightning aren’t able to somehow pull this off, the future looks bright for them. In fact, you could make a very strong case that things are lining up even better for them going forward than Chicago. That’s not to say the Blackhawks are in trouble, by any means. They’ve been a perennial contender, and should be for awhile going forward. But they’re about to have a ton of money wrapped up in two guys, so they’re going to have to do some juggling.
Tampa, meanwhile, could be in a better position than almost any team in the NHL for the next couple years. And here are a few reasons why…
1. Everyone’s Coming Back Next Season. No really, everyone is signed. That doesn’t mean the lineup will look identical in October, but the main pieces should be good to go. Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Ben Bishop, Ondrej Palat, Ryan Callahan, Victor Hedman and, oh yeah, Steven Stamkos. Remember him? They’re all signed through at least 2015-16, many for much longer. And that’s only some of the names.
What’s more, the nucleus of this club is young, so they should only get better. It also means a lot of them come with a fairly cheap price tag (Kucherov, for example, is set to make $711,000 next year). It’s sort of like the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL — they drafted well, and they get to reap the rewards of that by keeping everyone together for awhile.
2. Experience. Obviously, rallying to oust Chicago and hoist the Stanley Cup right now would be the greatest experience of all. And if they can’t make that happen, there’s going to be frustration for a little while. But eventually, they’re going to take a step back and realize what they accomplished this season was pretty impressive.
More importantly, they picked up a lot of invaluable learning experiences along the way — learning experiences you can only get by making a deep playoff run. Most teams, especially the young ones, push through a round or two, going a little further each year until they figure it out. This group has shoved their way past Detroit, Montreal and New York in essentially their first playoffs together. And they’re still hanging with the Blackhawks, of all teams, even with an injured goalie.
3. Goaltending. Eventually, they’re going to have to tell us all what exactly has been hindering Bishop (aside from running into a very large, very Swedish defenseman in Game 5). And he’s at least going to be at 100 percent by the time next season rolls around, right? That gives the Lightning a pretty solid edge over a lot of teams that have shown flashed of being elite over the last few years.
Not only do they have one of the best offenses in the league, they have some pretty good netminders to compliment the scoring. And yes, that should say “netminders”, with an “s”. Andrei Vasilevskiy may not be asked to start anytime soon, but they love his upside and it’s hard to argue with a 20-year-old who steps right into the third period of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final and helps preserve a win.
4. Coaching. If you didn’t know who Jon Cooper was before these playoffs started, you do now. And there’s a reason for that. He’s one of the absolute best coaches around — someone his players respect, look up to and listen to. Sure, part of the reason Tampa never seems to get rattled is the leadership from guys like Callahan and Stamkos in that locker room. But a lot of credit has to go to how the coach carries himself too.
5. Location. This isn’t meant to be a knock on the East. It’s not even meant to spark a debate between the level of competition in the two conferences. But it is sort of tough to deny that the path through the bracket in the West is a little more difficult to consistently navigate right now. Not in any one given year, but just in general.
To repeatedly make deep runs to the Cup from the West means ousting some combination of Chicago, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Minnesota and/or St. Louis. Not to mention the fact that the physicality and size that much of the competition out West possesses can wear a team down. Plus, some guy named Connor McDavid is joining the mix now too, which can’t possibly make things easier.
There are plenty of obstacles in the East as well, but many of the top teams seem to have at least one or two flaws that can be exploited.