Long gone are the days of hockey dynasties, when it was common for franchises to win back-to-back Stanley Cups. Fantastic franchises that owned the league for years, like the Islanders and Oilers of the 1980s, and the Red Wings of the 1990s, are now an endangered species due to the hard salary cap era that was born of the 2005 NHL lockout.
For the same reasons (read: parity) that the NFL may never see another dynasty, the NHL operates on a new landscape that's produced 15 seasons without a repeat champion. The late-'90s Red Wings are the last to do it, and 11 different teams have won titles since then.
Still, if the Chicago Blackhawks win the Cup this spring, they will qualify as a new-age dynasty attempting to win their third championship in six years. But the upstart Tampa Bay Lightning, the youngest team in the playoffs this spring and a club constructed by Steve Yzerman, the captain of those Detroit dynasty teams, will have something to say about that.
Here are five storylines to watch as the Stanley Cup Final opens in Tampa Wednesday night.
The Blackhawks Are on an Historic Run
Remember when Chicago was a basketball town? Michael Jordan left nearly 20 years ago, and the kings of the Madhouse on Madison are now wearing skates. They're also dressed in the best uniforms in pro sports. The Hawks made it through the Western Conference grinder to get to the Finals and have a chance to win it all yet again, a remarkable feat for a team that 10 years ago was annually one of the league's worst. If Chicago does win, we might get to see Jeremy Roenick cry again, and at the very least, we're guaranteed to get some good Patrick Kane videos. Let's face it: nobody parties better than the Blackhawks.
The Best Line in Hockey Right Now
Chicago has unmatched pedigree, but nobody's put the puck in the net this spring quite like the electric Tampa Bay offense. Tyler Johnson leads all players with 12 goals and 21 points in the playoffs. That's not bad for a player who went undrafted because teams were scared off by his lack of size. Maybe if Tampa wins the Cup, the NHL can order him a T-shirt that remotely fits. But at 5-foot-8, 175 pounds, the speedy 24-year-old powers Tampa's top line, known as "The Triplets," with sniper Nikita Kucherov and power forward Ondrej Palat.
Chicago goalie Corey Crawford is a proven playoff stopper and a relentless competitor. But this spring, he was on a short leash as Quenneville pulled him for backup Scott Darling after some early-round struggles. Even late in the Western Conference Finals, Crawford was a shaky bet in net, and if Chicago has a weakness, it's in goal. At the other end, Ben Bishop has stood out, and not just because he's 6-foot-7 and wears a glow-in-the-dark mask. While Bishop has recorded two Game 7 shut-outs in the tournament, he's also been lit up throughout the playoffs. Against the waves of Chicago's killer forwards bearing down on him in this series, Bishop could get torched again.
A Battle Between Young and Old
When you tune in for the Stanley Cup Final, be prepared to hear a lot about Tampa's youth and how they could be playing for multiple Cups for years to come. That's because the Bolts are the youngest team in the playoffs, with an average age of 26.3. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the battle-tested Blackhawks, at an average age of 29.4, are the oldest. Chicago skates the ageing Marian Hossa (36), Brad Richards (35), and Patrick Sharp (33), who are all key cogs behind youthful stars Jonathan Toews (27) and Kane (26), while Brenden Morrow (36) is Tampa's graybeard.
He's traditionally the first player to hoist the Cup at the end of the tournament, so this year it will either be Chicago's Toews, whose accepted it twice before, or Tampa's Steven Stamkos. Toews, also known as "Captain Serious" because of his all-business demeanor that's produced two Cups and two Olympic gold medals, is the modern-era Steve Yzerman, a superior leader and winner. Stamkos, who has evolved into one of the game's best players after former coach Barry Melrose once said he didn't belong in the NHL, is a lethal scorer who can play with a mean streak. He's two years younger than Toews and could be on the verge of vaulting his career forward with a Cup win.