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TAMPA BAY (CBSMiami/AP) – If the Florida Panthers need role model to give them something to strive for, they need look no farther than just a couple hours north.
The Panthers in-state rival, the Tampa Bay Lighting, are in the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in the last 11 years.
Between the Chicago Blackhawks’ veteran poise and the Lightning’s young stars, the Stanley Cup Final will have no shortage of dynamic offensive talent playing on hockey’s biggest stage.
The Blackhawks begin the final series in their quest for a third NHL championship in six seasons when they visit Amalie Arena on Wednesday to face the Lightning, who are going for the second Stanley Cup title in franchise history after streaking through the Eastern Conference bracket with a series of gutsy victories.
Both teams got to the last round in dramatic fashion, winning Game 7 on the road in the conference finals. Both are surging with confidence after putting away the Anaheim Ducks and the New York Rangers, who finished with their conferences’ best regular-season records.
And both the Blackhawks and the Lightning know how to entertain. Chicago stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are in the midst of another spectacular postseason, while Tampa Bay boasts two-time NHL goal-scoring leader Steven Stamkos and the dynamic “Triplets” line featuring youngsters Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov.
“Certainly watching their series against the Rangers, they have a lot of options with their skill, how dangerous they can be with putting pucks in the net,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said of the Lightning.
Here are some more reasons to watch these franchises’ first postseason meeting:
ORIGINAL SIX: The Lightning are the first team in NHL history to play four Original Six teams in the postseason, staring down the history and tradition that comes with facing off against the oldest teams in hockey. Tampa Bay knocked off Detroit, Montreal and the New York Rangers, and the Lightning youngsters didn’t flinch when they had to play Game 7 at Madison Square Garden against Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The Blackhawks will respect that old-school moxie.
EXPERIENCE COUNTS: The Lightning had just one playoff appearance in the previous three years before this spring, so this is still new to most of them. The Blackhawks have been among the NHL’s top teams for seven seasons now, making five conference finals and winning three of them. Chicago has played in just about every big-game situation imaginable since 2009. One added bonus: the stands in Tampa are guaranteed to be filled with a healthy contingent of Blackhawks fans cheering through the anthem.
SPEED AND ENDURANCE: “I think the thing that stands out to me is their team speed and their skill level up front,” Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said of Tampa Bay. Keith knows how to handle speed after playing extraordinary minutes in the Blackhawks’ seven-game victory over the fleet-footed Ducks. Chicago only used four defensemen extensively against Anaheim, but those four had little trouble keeping up. They’ve only got one series left to chase after Tampa Bay’s Triplets line and Stamkos, and Keith only laughs when asked about his supernatural conditioning.
RICHARDS’ RETURN: Brad Richards was a third-round pick by the Lightning in 1998, and the durableforward was a fixture in their lineup from 2000 until 2008. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2004 while leading Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup title, scoring 26 points in 23 playoff games. He was traded to Dallas and went to the New York Rangers until he washed up last summer in Chicago, where he promptly resurrected his flagging career as a two-way forward. He is an important part of the Blackhawks’ lineup heading back to Florida, and Richards also carries an 8-0 career record in Game 7, if it comes to that. “(Richards) got a little quicker as the season progressed, a little more jump in his stride,” Quenneville said. “Noticeable as we got further in the playoffs, as well.”
GOALIE CHALLENGE: Corey Crawford backstopped Chicago to the 2013 Stanley Cup, but he also got pulled from the lineup during the first round of this postseason. Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop has already played 20 games in the postseason, and his last five against the Rangers were either shutouts (two at Madison Square Garden) or five-goal disappointments (3). We’ll soon know whether Crawford’s experience trumps the 6-foot-7 Bishop’s unusual matchup qualities.
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