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(Reuters) - The Tampa Bay Lightning believe they have what it takes to become an NHL dynasty but first must topple a Chicago Blackhawks team that are bidding for a third Stanley Cup in six seasons.
Chicago are the first club to make three trips to the Stanley Cup Final in the salary cap era, which began in 2005-06.
Now they want to be the first to win three championships in a six-season span since the Detroit Red Wings celebrated titles in 1997, 1998 and 2002.
The Blackhawks have the experience and pedigree, but the Lightning boast an upset-minded roster that has produced series wins over three Original Six teams in the Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers.
Beating three of the NHL's charter members in a postseason has never been done before. Now the Lightning can make it four against the Blackhawks.
"The thing that stands out to me is their team speed and their skill level up front," said Blackhawks All-Star defenseman Duncan Keith. "I remember playing them towards the end of the season, and they beat us pretty good. I think as a team we've got a lot of respect for them.
"They're there for a reason. They've got a lot of speed up front. They've got big defensemen that can move the puck and skate, and a big goalie who can stop the puck, too."
In the mid-1980s, Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper became engrossed in the legendary New York Islanders, a team that won four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980-83.
He was a lacrosse star and business administration student at Hofstra University. Across the street was Nassau Country Coliseum, the home of the Islanders.
A buddy from back home in Saskatchewan, Brad Lauer, played for the Islanders. So Cooper often took in their home games.
“I remember being able to go down there,” Cooper said. “I just loved being a part of it. I don't know if that fueled anything in me today.
“I never really thought about that, but you ask the question now and I just remember that feeling of being there.
"I never, obviously, ever thought that I'd be standing here answering that question. But maybe there is a little piece that drove me from my days there."
Cooper's players are the underdogs. The Blackhawks have an elite group of decorated players in Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Brad Richards, Brent Seabrook and Keith.
The hockey world is about to find out whether Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop can match Chicago's Corey Crawford and whether defenseman Victor Hedman is ready to be considered in the same rarified air as Keith.
There is no doubt that Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman has put together plenty of star power up front with Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and Ryan Callahan.
Finally, don’t sell the Lightning short on experience. Valtteri Filppula may be the only Tampa Bay player who has a Stanley Cup ring in his possession – with the 2006-07 Red Wings – but Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle, Brenden Morrow, Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn have been to a final.
But can the Lightning as a group take that next step against a dynasty?
Editing by Steve Keating