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Into The Great Wide Open – Stanley Cup Final Preview: The Tampa Forwards

This is where it might get to be tough reading for everyone. It is rare that you would find yourself saying, “Boy, I’m not sure the Hawks want to get into a track meet with these guys.” Generally games against Colorado have fallen into that category. Dallas is sort of edging that way. And generally that’s about it.

But Tampa would almost certainly be on top of that list. While the Preds tried to go plaid and wear the Hawks out that way, the Lightning will try and do some of the same things Nashville did. Except they’ll try it with a consistent 40-goal scorer who once pierced 60, two Calder finalists from last year who are Conn Smythe contenders this year, and a some pretty clever centers. Yeah, little worrying.

But much like the defense, there’s an upper echelon here and then a Looney Tunes cliff-like drop. Let’s get into the nitty gritty.

Alex Killorn-Valtteri Filppula-Steven Stamkos

Oh goodie, a week or two of trying to spell “Valtteri Filppula” without looking it up. Joy. 

Not only do the Lightning have a ton of talent in their top six, but their coach John Cooper has made some interesting choices throughout the lineup. Somewhere around March, Cooper flipped Stamkos to the wing with Filppula moving up from his 3rd line center role to the top line. The thought was it would open up Stamkos’s scoring chances more, where he would be able to get out of his own zone earlier, and spend more time finding space in the offensive zone instead of wrangling below the net. The Lightning aren’t blessed with a bevy of miners and diggers along the boards, so leaving Filppula to do it would be a boon to Stamkos.

The results have only been ok. Stamkos has 17 points in the playoffs, but their possession numbers are only just barely on the positive side with Killorn and Stamkos carrying a mark of 51% in the playoffs and Filps at 48% and that’s with pretty cushy zone starts for this line (Filpulla comes out for some draws defensively without these linemates when needed).

That’s not the whole story, of course. Filppula was a major nuisance when he was in Detroit for the Hawks, either through big goals or through quietly sitting on the Hawks goalie while someone else scored. He’s been a solid defensive center with a sprinkling of offensive dash. Still, if Ryan Kesler couldn’t keep a lid on Toews throughout a series, Filps isn’t going to either if that’s the way Cooper wants to play it.

But clearly the focus will be on Stamkos, and I wonder if he’ll stick at wing. Because if he is going to continue as a right-winger, well that’s where Duncan Keith lives. Ask Jarome Iginla how that’s worked out for him in the past. Stamkos is more than just a bomb from the circle and has really become adept at creating his own shot more. He has murdered the Hawks in his career, with 11 goals and 17 points in just nine career games against them. Good lord stay out of the box, because he’s going to get enough looks at evens and you know what a weapon he is on the power play. As a winger though, there is a chance to cut off his chances at the source, by getting the best of Filppula. And that’s a job that will fall to all Hawks centers.

Ondrej Palat-Tyler Johnson-Nikita Kucherov

Yes, you may have heard of these Triplets. They saved the Bolts’s ass against the Wings. They tore apart the Canadiens. They didn’t drop off much against the Rangers. Yes, quite imposing. 

Tyler Johnson has caught the eye since he came up last season, playing a big game at high speed even though he’s listed at only 5-8. It always seems like Johnson is just on the puck no matter where it is or where he came from. D-men get to a puck and Johnson is just there. A mistake at the defensive blue line and it’s Johnson that’s streaking away. He’s the one popping up in scoring areas from nowhere. It’s just an all-action style that is nearly impossible to hold down.

Kucherov and Palat aren’t nearly as straight line as Johnson, but are the creators. Both can finish as well, with Kucherov having one of the more lightning (get it?) releases on his shot in the league. What is striking about these three is just how fast they play. It’s not just on the rush either, which the Hawks have to be careful about. They’re so quick on the forecheck that they don’t come to hit down low but to win the race which they often do. If they do, they can cycle and move around the zone so quickly that you’re forever in their wake.

Obviously these guys are the possession leaders for the Bolts at forward, as a threesome with this much speed is hard to contain. When it comes to the Bolts’ top six, the Hawks have to really be careful at the T.B. blue line. Any bad pinch, or the third forward getting caught too low, and this team is gone. You can’t catch them from behind and squeeze their space. Which could limit the Hawks’ attack, as it’s built on Keith and Oduya tightening the space in the offensive zone to keep things going and being able to stand up at their own line with pressure from behind. One bad step and the Hawks will lose the opportunity to do either and will let these six into space, which is death.

And now the fall….

Ryan Callahan-Cedric Pacquette-J.T. Brown

This would be something of an energy line on most teams, I guess. The bottom six for Tampa is kind of fluid, as Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow do take shifts with these three at times in games.

Callahan has somehow become the most celebrated third liner in the game. Being a Ranger helped, and being able to moonlight on a 2nd line and produce goals is the rest of it. But really, Callahan’s skill-set is one of a checking forward, plays a hard game and is good in the corners and on the wall. He’ll block shots, get to the net, look good yelling at someone, but he’s not going to create much on his own.

Pacquette is a nasty little shit but has been getting his head kicked in possession wise in the playoffs, with a 37% Corsi for this spring. As as the Bolts really only roll nine or 10 forwards, he finds himself getting the short end of time a lot.

J.T. Brown is really fast, always looks like he’s doing a lot and making things happen, is one of the bigger physical presences the Lightning have even though he’s 5-10, and then it’s all over and you ask yourself if any of it meant anything. And generally, it hasn’t.

This unit, no matter what three of five has comprised it, have been rolled over. That shouldn’t change this series.

Brenden Morrow-Brian Boyle

Cooper has gone with a seven d-man look for most of the playoffs, so these two round out the forwards. Morrow, as you probably know, was clinically dead last year for the Blues against the Hawks, and this series should pass him by in a fucking hurry. He’s been getting clocked in possession as well these playoffs, and hasn’t registered a point. As he watches things go past him you can expect him to do something stupid to justify his existence, be it a slash or running Crawford or some hit from behind. Cooper will be doing the Hawks a favor by dressing this fossilized horse turd.

There’s a part of me that’s always wanted Boyle to be a Hawk, not because I like his game but just because I wanted to see how much Hawks fans would despise him. And they would. While he is 6-7, good at the dot, and defensively solid, he’s not a hulking physical presence. A favorite metaphor of McClure is calling someone a big mattress out there, and that’s what Boyle is. He’s unwieldy but not forceful, meaning much smaller players can actually joust with him and get the better of him. And once you’re away from him, he’s not going to catch you. The only danger with Boyle is that he can lean on you in his zone and prevent the Hawks from getting things going. But considering the speed of the Hawks, I heavily doubt Cooper is going to try him as a checking center.

As you can see, there’s a major difference between the Bolts’ top six and bottom. And considering Pacquette and Boyle are outgunned here, Cooper probably just has to fight fire with fire in Tampa and get his top two lines out against the Hawks’ top two lines. If he tries to get cute and Toews and Kane and Hossa and Richards and Saad are getting looks as this bottom six with the bottom pairing d-men behind that, it could get away from the Lightning in a hurry.


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