FANS TREATING THE TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING LIKE THE RODNEY DANGERFIELD OF HOCKEY ARE MISSING THE POINT
When the Tamp Bay Lightning eliminated the New York Rangers last week, much was said about the difference between their on ice celebration, where players poured off the bench to mob each other in raucous joy, to that of their eventual Stanley Cup opponent Chicago Blackhawks, who treated it like just another day at the office when they sent the Anaheim Ducks packing in the seventh game of the Western Conference Final. Since the matchup became official, the Bolts have been getting precious little respect from any corner of Hockeydom, the most charitable prediction most pundits have offered is that Steve Stamkos and crew may last as long as six games against the mighty Chicago Blackhawks. Reading most analytical breakdowns, the mainstream sports media seems content to ruffle Tampa Bay’s hair like the upstart scamps they are, scamps who are so overmatched they should just save themselves the bother and eventual humiliation and not even show up for the games. And while the media has been borderline condescending to the Lightning, the blogosphere has been even more merciless. According to the citizens of the Internet, Tampa is just lucky to be where they are, most are predicting the Bolts will suffer an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the boys from the Windy City and many give you the impression that the Lightning should bow down and kiss the feet of their opponents. Apparently, representing the East for the Stanley Cup, the toughest trophy in all of professional sports to win, no longer warrants any respect. The Tampa Lightning have become, for lack of a better comparison, the Rodney Dangerfield of the NHL.
This isn’t a prediction; these teams are both elite squads who earned their respective berths in the Final, and they offer one of the more intriguing matchups in recent memory. Nor is this to say that the Chicago Blackhawks don’t deserve the vast respect they get. This is a team that has made the playoffs seven consecutive years (no small feat in the NHL’s thirty team salary cap world), this is their third trip to the Stanley Cup finals in the past six years and they’ve hoisted Lord Stanley’s coveted Chalice twice in the same period. Lightning captain Steve Stamkos called the Blackhawks a beast, and for good reason. There is just as much chance that this series ends in a sweep, as there is that it goes the distance in a seven game marathon.
But the Tampa Bay Lightning deserve to be here just as much as the Chicago Blackhawks do. Tampa Bay was the highest scoring team in the regular season, a trend they’ve continued during the grind of the post season, when goals are often tougher to come by then an honest politician, and they significantly tightened up their mediocre defense. The Lightning eliminated the highly respected Detroit Red Wings (who have qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs an amazing 24 consecutive seasons and is regarded as the most efficiently run organization in the NHL), they knocked out the Montreal Canadiens and Carey Price (widely regarded as the best goaltender on the planet right now) in the second round and they sent the President Trophy winning New York Rangers (the most successful team in the regular season) packing in round three. In fact, Tampa Bay holds the distinction of being the only team to eliminate three “Original 6” teams to get to the Stanley Cup final, where they now face another one for the Cup. Steve Stamkos, who slept walked through Tampa’s first round battle with the Red Wings, awoke with a vengeance in round two and is skating hard, throwing hits and scoring big goals. In short he’s become the prototypical Stanley Cup franchise player, the Lightning’s possible answer to Chicago superstar and future Hall of Famer Jonathan Toews. The Bolts have an underrated blue line lead by 2009 second overall pick Victor Hedman, whose quickly becoming one of the game’s elite two way defenders, and while goalie Ben Bishop may not be reminding anyone of Patrick Roy, he’s shown that he can come up big when needed and has two game seven shut outs on his resume to prove it. There’s no reason to think that Tampa Bay will skate over Chicago, but there shouldn’t be any reason to think that they’ll be fodder for the Blackhawks either. And you can’t help but get the feeling that if any of the “Original Six” squads that the Bolts sent golfing were facing Chicago in the Final, that they’d be getting a little more respect and fewer pats on the head from the peanut gallery.
Game one of the series probably didn’t go according to either team’s plans. While Chicago won the game based on a pair of lightning quick (pardon the pun) goals late in the third period, they spent most of the game playing catch up and Tampa proved that they could hold the Blackhawks formidable attack at bay for long stretches. The Bolts meanwhile, learned that you can never count the Hawks out, you can never let up the attack and that Chicago will pounce on even the tiniest mistake and punish you for it. While Chicago’s 2-1 victory may have been the result a lot of people expected, it was hardly the blowout many predicted. The two teams probably learned quite a bit about each other during those three periods and fans can expect to see radically different battle plans from both squads for game two. While Tampa Bay management should be embarrassed by their absurd ban on Blackhawks jerseys and colours in certain seating areas during home games, Steve Yzerman and his staff should take enormous pride in the team they’ve assembled and the success it has enjoyed. Perhaps Tampa’s biggest motive to win the Stanley Cup is to finally earn some much deserved.