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Are the Lightning a true threat to the Blackhawks?
@ESPN_Burnside: As if we needed any more evidence that the Tampa Bay Lightning are back, Thursday's game was Exhibit A. The Lightning ended the Chicago Blackhawks' franchise-best 12-game winning streak with a 2-1 home win, exacting small measure of revenge for the Stanley Cup finals loss to the Blackhawks. This was the Lightning team that won Game 7s against the Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers last spring before falling in six games in the finals, using timely scoring and strong team defense and goaltending to defeat the NHL's hottest team. Chicago, which will play in Florida against the Panthers on Friday, got a goal from Artem Anisimov in the first minute of play but was shut out the rest of the way and managed just 18 shots on goal in total. The win was the Bolts' seventh in a row and moved them into second place in the Atlantic Division, with a big showdown looming Saturday with the first-place Panthers. So, if last year's final series began today, would you give the Lightning a better chance of besting the Blackhawks?
@CraigCustance: It would be a great series, for sure. Would I give the Lightning a better chance? Absolutely. For one, they have the benefit of the experience they got playing in the finals last year. Secondly, goalie Ben Bishop would likely perform better: He's playing better this season than last season, he has the benefit of that postseason experience now, and, in theory, he'd be completely healthy this time around. Plus, my guess is that superstar captain Steven Stamkos wouldn't go another Stanley Cup final without scoring a goal. Would I pick them to beat the Blackhawks in a seven game series? That's a more difficult question. Probably not, unless Chicago comes out of the West banged up, which would be a distinct possibility with the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings looming. I've seen the Blackhawks find a way to win too many series to pick against them, though.
@ESPNJoeyMac: We've talked recently about possible playoff matchups, and I'm on record as saying the Blackhawks will not repeat as Stanley Cup champions, but I would love to see a rematch between Chicago and the Lightning. We all knew Tampa's early struggles wouldn't last, and now we're seeing the Lightning's true form. If these teams were to reach the finals again, no doubt it would be a seven-game series. Man, the entertainment value would be through the roof. If that ever comes to fruition, my money's on the Lightning. It would be only fitting if Stamkos ends his current contract with a Stanley Cup and forces GM Steve Yzerman to give him a massive extension. And hey, it would be fun to cover that series.
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The Blackhawks did get some good news Thursday, with word coming down that their plans for a new practice facility have received approval from city planners.