TAMPA — For those hockey viewers who have been exclusively focusing on, say, the Bruins this season, turning on the television Wednesday for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final might provide a bit of a jolt — or, perhaps, whiplash.
Because this series represents a different brand of hockey — a different level of skill, a different pace of play — than that which has been seen in Boston of late, at least from the home team. The Lightning and the Blackhawks, the two teams left playing this season, possess some of the best of both that the NHL has to offer, a far cry from the sometimes-plodding efforts of the Bruins.
This is where the NHL is going. This is the type of team the Bruins, who have developed speedy forwards Ryan Spooner and David Pastrnak, need to become.
“You’ve got to make sure that you’re evolving with the times,” said Hingham, Mass., native and Lightning center Brian Boyle. “I think you need to understand that if you watch a game from 20 years ago, it looks a lot slower than it is now.
“I’m not a GM. I don’t ever claim to be. But if it’s my opinion, yeah, I think the league’s getting faster, so teams need to get faster. Players, individuals, need to understand that.”
General managers, too.
So, can teams survive without the speed, without the skill? Is there still a place for big and strong and gritty and physical, in the absence of a quicker pace and more dynamic talent? Is there a place for teams that don’t play like the Blackhawks and Lightning and, beyond them, the Rangers and Canadiens and others in the top tier?
Perhaps not, at least not if those teams want to play for the Cup.
“I don’t think size matters as much as it did maybe 10 years ago, or even when I started coming into the league seven years ago,” Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “It was still every team pretty much had one or two fighters still on their team, a lot of big guys.
“But now when you see young players coming into the league, it’s a lot of skill and they’re maybe not as big as maybe they was before. They have a lot of speed.
“Yeah, I’d say so, that the game is getting faster and faster.”
The Blackhawks have turned that way of thinking into three Finals appearances in the last six years — including in 2013 against the Bruins. And though it took seven games in the Western Conference finals, it was the speed and skill of Chicago that took down the much bigger, more physical Ducks — and heavyweights Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
It seemed, in some ways, a triumph of the new NHL over the old.
But not everyone is convinced.
“There’s a lot of good teams out there that don’t play the fastest systems, but these are probably two of the fastest teams in the league,” said Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop, who hasn’t always been at his best against that less-than-speedy Bruins team (career .898 save percentage, 3.09 goals-against average).
“Both teams have depth that can score. You look up and down their lineup, just about everybody can put the puck in the net. You look up and down ours, about the same. Their defense, they move quick, too.
“I don’t know how fast you can get, but this will probably be as fast as it goes.”
That will be evident in Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane and in the Lightning’s Triplets Line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov. It will be evident in players for whom having skilled hands and great speed has triumphed over the need to have good size.
And while one team has significantly more experience than the other — that would be Chicago — there are many more similarities than differences in the way the teams play, as they model the way the league is going.
So, Kane was asked, does this Stanley Cup Final represent the future?
“I hope so,” he said. “I think it’s great for the game that two teams in the Final have this amount of skill, have this amount of high-quality offensive players. I think it’s good for the game and makes the game more exciting when you see teams like this playing.
“You’ve kind of seen that in the past, there’s been teams that have been more defensive that have won it, but they always seem to have that offensive instinct and have that ability to score goals, too.
“I think it’s good for the game, good for where the game’s at, and good for the future, too.”