David J. Neal

David J. Neal: Stanley Cup Finals participants offer hope to Florida Panthers

Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos skates before Game 3 of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center in Chicago on June 8, 2015.
Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos skates before Game 3 of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center in Chicago on June 8, 2015. Getty Images

Meanwhile, over on the annual late spring championship undercard, Chicago and Tampa Bay smoked through four games at a heart-hammering pace that left puckheads of all biases exhausted in that broadly smiling way.

This Stanley Cup Final, tied 2-2 going into Saturday’s Game 5 in Tampa, hasn’t been call-next-day good. This has been don’t-go-home good.

With each team using its speed and skill to attack – a rare duality over the last 20 years – we’ve been treated to long, stoppage-free stretches of appropriate recklessness. Tension stays high.

Chicago escaped Wednesday’s Game 4 with a 2-1 win after a wild last four minutes that included Tampa Bay goal scoring ace Steven Stamkos getting two shots from 15 feet, straight on. One got saved by Chicago goalie Corey Crawford. A second, with an open net and overtime beckoning, ticked just wide off the extended stick of Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook.

As the later lightning storm strobe lit South Florida like paparazzi from Olympus, I thought, “Now, we know how Crawford felt.”

The last time a Stanley Cup Final’s first four games brought this much drama? Maybe 1951, when Toronto beat Montreal in five games, all of which went to overtime. All the other Cup Finals I’ve watched/covered (1974-present) or researched contained at least one ehhh or just flat out bad game among the first four.

Here’s how good this final has been: it has a shot at being the Best Ever as well as provide hope for the Florida Panthers.

Nobody’s ever been down for as long as the Panthers. Seventeen years with only two playoff series represents the worst extended stretch in NHL history. Chicago and Tampa Bay can’t say they’ve been in the Panthers slums. But they’ve lived nearby. Their path out can be the Panthers’.

Tampa Bay’s original turnaround from NHL laughingstock into 2004 Stanley Cup winners played like Carrie’s prom – the NHL dumped the pig blood on the party by locking out its players for the entire 2004-05 season. Post-lockout, amidst ownership and coaching comedies, the Lightning slowly sank back to the NHL’s underclass by 2007-08.

They rejoined the Blackhawks. To anybody who remembered high-flying Chicago Stadium days found the massive, half-empty United Center a giant barbiturate from 1997-98 through 2007-08.

Some fans who did show up spent pregame outside the arena protesting Bill Wirtz’s longtime ownership. Don’t be surprised Blackhawks fans consider Wirtz’s 2007 death certificate the franchise’s Emancipation Proclamation.

In that year’s draft, then-Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon, took Patrick Kane No. 1 overall in the 2007 NHL Draft. But Tallon, now the Panthers’ GM, identifies the most important personnel move as drafting of Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews No. 3 overall in 2006.

While Kane’s an offensive sorcerer of rare talent, Toews is the Blackhawks’ Batman. Toews willing whatever needs to happen to save Chicago’s collective butt almost counts as cliché now. Kane scored the 2010 overtime goal that ended the Blackhawks Cup drought at 39 years. Chicago’s next Cup drought lasted only three years.

Consecutive Lightning stinky seasons put Tampa Bay into position to draft Stamkos No. 1 overall in 2008 and defenseman Victor Hedman No. 2 overall in 2009. That gave the Lightning an elite sniper and, as Hedman matured, a defenseman who could dominate at either end.

Now, the Panthers ownership situation seems to have stabilized. Tallon is in his fifth year here. He’s drafted a spread of young talent envied across the league.

The Panthers might have their Hedman in 2014 No. 1 overall draft pick Aaron Ekblad, a Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year) finalist after a season of uncommon maturity. No Toews-like personality has emerged. They don’t have a Stamkos or Kane, although big, lanky Nick Bjugstad occasionally looked unstoppable last season before season-ending back surgery.

No preseason projection, save those of booster clubs and mothers, placed the Panthers as close to the playoffs as they got this year. There were nights when the Panthers showed the Lightning’s ability to design picturesque offense and other nights they showed Chicago’s resiliency. A future role in a firewagon hockey Cup Final like the current thriller seems far away but not fantasy.

For now, enjoy the enthralling reality presented by Chicago and Tampa Bay.

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