Andrew Shaw faces off against Brian Boyle (Scott Audette/Getty Images)
Line shuffling and matching will play a part in the Stanley Cup final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks, so take a look at what to expect from each unit ahead of Wednesday’s puck drop. Will it be Tampa’s top two lines that make the difference or Chicago’s effective bottom-six against a Lightning group that hasn’t been scoring?
Both the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks have been successful this post-season by making slight adjustments to their lineup. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has made a tweak here, Lightning coach Jon Cooper has utilized a change there and, over the course of three rounds, here we are: the Stanley Cup final, with Chicago and Tampa Bay set to square off in a best-of-seven series that is setting up to be nothing short of outstanding.
One of the biggest changes was Quennville’s move to put Patrick Kane on the top line alongside Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad. Together, the trio helped push the Blackhawks to victories in Game 6 and 7 of the Western Conference final and on to fight for the Stanley Cup. For Tampa Bay, one of Cooper’s strokes of genius has been paying off since the start of the season, and that’s the ‘Triplets’ line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat.
Over the course of the series, however, both clubs will need contributions from throughout the lineup and each line will be tasked with different objectives at both ends of the ice.
Playoff points*: Shocking as it may be, the leading point-getter for the Lightning’s top line isn’t Stamkos, nor is he the one with the most goals. Killorn holds both those distinctions, having scored six goals and 12 points at 5-on-5 throughout the first three rounds of the post-season. Stamkos is close to Killorn, though, with five markers and nine points, while Filppula is lagging behind with just one goal and seven points.
(*Each line’s playoff points measured at 5-on-5.)
Offense: The goal for the top line of the Lightning is going to be to produce. They’re not the shutdown guys and they’re not going to be working the puck below the goal line quite like the Anaheim Ducks top line did against the Blackhawks.
With Stamkos, quick strike offense is always a threat. Stamkos’ booming shot is lethal on the power play, but he doesn’t need to load up a slapshot to beat opposition netminders. His wristshot might somehow be underrated, if you can believe that, and he has produced against Chicago during the regular season – in two meetings, he had one goal and two points. If the top line gets going early in the series, they could help Tampa Bay make quick work of Chicago.
Defense: Defensively, it’s likely that Stamkos’ line won’t see Chicago’s top stars, so what they’re going to need to do is stop the Blackhawks from exiting the zone and, if Chicago does manage to get the puck deep into the Tampa Bay end, Stamkos, Killorn and Filppula will need to recover it quickly and turn it back up ice. All three can move the puck quickly and cleanly, so efficient zone exits will be their defensive task.
Playoff points: Is it any surprise to see Kane leading the way? After being questionable for the playoffs due to a collar bone injury, Kane came back into the lineup for Game 1 of the Blackhawks’ first-round series and has been an offensive force for Chicago ever since. At 5-on-5, Kane has matched Killorn’s offensive output with 12 points, but seven of those are goals. Meanwhile, both Toews and Saad have found the score sheet seven times. Five of Saad’s points are goals, however.
Offense: When Marian Hossa was on a line with Toews and Saad, the mission was purely puck possession and tiring out defenses while opening up scoring chances with an incredible cycle game. With Kane on the wing, things are a bit different as the Blackhawks can look to attack with more skill thanks to Kane’s exceptional puck handling.
Saad and Kane hooked up for goals in Game 6 and 7 against the Ducks and Kane’s speed opened up a passing lane early in Game 7 that allowed Niklas Hjlamarsson to get the puck to the Ducks’ net. Hjalmarsson’s shot created the rebound that resulted in Toews’ first of two goals in Game 7. The new dynamic of the line could pay dividends in the final.
Defense: Everyone knows how defensively sound Toews is and he’s praised for it consistently, but the impact Toews and Hossa have had on developing Saad’s game is impressive. In many ways, Saad has developed into Hossa-lite – a strong skater who is difficult to knock off the puck and backchecks with ferocity.
Having Saad and Toews with Kane is important in that aspect because Kane, for all his talents, isn’t the soundest defensive player. He’ll make mistakes in his own zone and cheat for chances up the ice. Having two defensive-minded forwards with Kane helps the line immensely.
Playoff points: Johnson leads the pack with eight goals and 12 points, but Kucherov and Palat aren’t far behind with 10 points and eight points, respectively. Johnson’s point total has skyrocketed thanks to an outstanding 24.2 percent shooting percentage and he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing. With Kucherov and Palat feeding him, the trio is looking like they want to split the Conn Smythe three ways.
Offense: It’s funny to call this a second line because, in many regards, this was quite possibly the best line in the NHL all season. From the beginning of the year until the end, they were consistently scoring, producing chances, outshooting and out-attempting opponents and making things look easy for the Lightning. Realistically, the job for the Blackhawks won’t be to stop this line, but to contain it as best as they can.
Many think of Chicago as a team that possesses the ability to move the puck quickly and get the defense turned and panicking, but there may be no better line in the league than the ‘Triplets’ at confusing opposition defenses and opening up space to produce quality scoring chances.
Defense: It will likely be this unit that gets tasked with facing off against the Toews line, if for no other reason than both units can punch and counter-punch. In the two meetings the clubs had this season, the trio is the only current line combination that played at least seven-plus minutes of 5-on-5 against Toews’ group, so that’s probably a matchup Cooper will want to get again.
Playoff points: From a points-per-game perspective, this is the best Hossa has been in the post-season during a deep run since his 2007-08 Stanley Cup final appearance with the Pittsburgh Penguins. At 5-on-5, he has been on par with Toews, too, posting two goals and seven points in 17 games. As unexpected as it may be, though, seven points is actually second best on the line, as Richards’ two goals and eight points rank first. Bickell has just four assists.
Offense: The line combination is unique because all three players have different styles. Hossa is fast, skilled and strong on the puck; Richards can be a distributor but he’s not going to wow anyone with his speed; Bickell is going to lay the body and, should he get space, can let go an incredible shot – he’s just having trouble finding the net. Offensively, look for them to try and create down low before working the puck high and driving to the net for rebounds.
Defense: He’s never won the Selke Trophy, but Hossa is so sound defensively that it’s rare you see him lose the puck in the offensive zone and it turn into a goal the other way. One of the best backcheckers in the league, Hossa seemingly shows more determination defensively than he does offensively and that wins him serious points with Quenneville. Bickell is the weakest link defensively, but it’s most likely this line matches up against the bottom-six of Tampa Bay, which should make life easier on them.
Playoff points: The line, as a whole, has a combined one goal and four points at 5-on-5, and Paquette has contributed not a single point to that total. Brown has the lone goal, while Callahan has three assists. Suffice to say, this isn’t a line that is looked to as top producers and not one that is going to blow away the opposition.
Offense: What the line will do, however, is fight for every single inch of ice in the offensive zone and try to work the puck down low to grind opponents out of the building. Brown has had next to no luck shooting the puck. He came close to scoring an overtime tally for the Lightning on a breakaway but was denied by Henrik Lundqvist. They won’t create many opportunities, but Tampa Bay’s third line can get the dirty goals necessary to win a series.
Defense: Brown, Paquette and Callahan all take the bulk of their shifts starting in the defensive zone, so they’ll likely be deployed against the Blackhawks’ third line and be tasked with shutting them down. To do so, they’ll simply need to keep doing what they’ve been doing all post-season: get in shooting lanes and block shots.
Over the course of the post-season, Callahan and Paquette rank fourth and fifth, having stepped in front of 12 and 10 shots, respectively.
Playoff points: No surprise here that Sharp is the leader with three goals and eight points at 5-on-5, but what about Teravainen? In 12 games, he has two goals and five points, the same totals as Vermette, who was Chicago’s big trade deadline acquisition. Teravainen was yanked out of the lineup in the Western Confernce final but there’s little chance he’s pulled out again unless he wildly underperforms. He’s been that good for Chicago.
Offense: The makeup of Chicago’s third unit makes perfect sense. On one wing you have a player that’s going to shoot at every opportunity in Sharp, on the other you have a playmaker in Teravainen and Vermette can win faceoffs to let the other two work their magic. The problem is, however, that Sharp’s offense has been just about non-existent since the second round.
Sharp has a tendency to shoot the puck from just about anywhere. While not a bad trait, many of those shots come from tight angles and on low percentage shots. If he can actually find some space down the middle of the ice and Teravainen can get him the puck, that’s how he’ll score.
Defense: Teravainen, for all his talent offensively, isn’t quite the strongest on his skates. His diminutive frame plays into that, surely, but he’s going to need to improve his stick skills to strip opponents of pucks. Sharp is a veteran who knows where he has to be and Vermette was one of the top penalty killers on the Arizona Coyotes for a reason. As a group, they’re defensively sound, but Teravainen won’t be winning many battles with his strength.
Playoff points: On this line, Boyle is the only one to register a 5-on-5 point and that was a secondary assist. There’s a reason for that, however, as you won’t be seeing this unit utilized in the offensive zone. Their job isn’t to score.
Offense: One point at even strength in the entire post-season doesn’t scream offense, but you never know what can happen in tight games in the post-season. Darren McCarty of the famous ‘Grind Line’ contributed to the Detroit Red Wings, so who’s to say Morrow, Boyle or Marchessault won’t step up at the right moment? If they do, it’s going to come off of a defensive zone faceoff win and getting the puck out of the zone quickly. That’s this line’s bread and butter.
Defense: Win faceoffs, exit the zone, change, rinse, lather and repeat. Boyle has been about even on faceoffs in the playoffs and only Filppula had a better winning percentage in the regular season. This is Tampa Bay’s version of the 'Grind Line' and one that isn’t going to impress with how they exit the zone, but rather because, somehow, they always manage to. Having the fourth line match up well against the Blackhawks will be key.
Playoff points: Sure, his header wasn't allowed, but Shaw has managed one goal and four points that did actually count to lead his line in point-scoring. For what it’s worth, though, both Kruger and Desjardins have contributed this post-season at 5-on-5, each having notched two points at five a side. One of Kruger’s goals was the overtime winner in a marathon contest between the Ducks and Blackhawks.
Offense: Shockingly, this fourth line actually has some puck skills. In the earlier rounds, Kruger was showing he could fool goalies with his shot from the outside, but there’s some thought he may be nursing an injury that is hindering his ability to take faceoffs, which likely hurts how well he can shoot the puck. Shaw is a grinder in the truest of senses and his nickname – ‘Mutt’ – seems all the more fitting when you watch him play. It won’t matter at 5-on-5, but Shaw has been getting work as the netfront guy on the Blackhawks’ top power play unit.
Defense: Stamkos’ line? The 'Triplets'? This unit will be tasked with defending one of the two, which may be one of the biggest edges the Blackhawks have. This fourth unit was great against the line of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf in the Western Conference final and they’ll have to do it again against Tampa Bay’s big guys in the Stanley Cup final.
One thing to watch, however, is Shaw at center. For what it’s worth, he has been better than Kruger on the dot, but there are moments when he seems to get lost playing as a pivot. If the idea is to have Shaw take the draw and move into a defensive position as a winger, that will benefit Chicago more than having him stay as the line's center.