CHICAGO – This one is hard to figure. Until the third period Wednesday night, two-thirds of the way through Game Four of the Stanley Cup final, the Chicago Blackhawks had led the series for a whole 11 minutes, 26 seconds out of 220 minutes. They were tied a lot, behind a lot and barely ahead.
The Hawks love to play from ahead but it hasn’t happened in this series. They didn’t score first in any of the first three games. They were oddly on their heels for the first 30 minutes of Game Four, when you would have figured it would be all guns blazing after the Tampa Bay Lightning realized hobbled goalie Ben Bishop simply couldn’t go.
Somehow, the series is tied after four games. It’s simply because the Hawks make plays when they have to. Game after game.
They squeezed out a 2-1 victory Wednesday on Brandon Saad’s goal at 6:22 of the third period and thus guaranteed a return home for Game Six here Monday night. Perhaps it could be a Cup-clinching game, if they can win Game Five on Saturday in Tampa.
It’s the first final to open with four straight one-goal games since Montreal’s sweep of St. Louis in 1968. Both teams have nine goals. For all 240 minutes of play, the score has either been tied or the margin has been one goal. Amazing.
“These guys are way better than anybody imagined at checking and trying to frustrate you,” Hawks forward Brad Richards said of the Lightning. “So we’re learning that mentality that it might be 2-1 games the rest of the way. I think we got caught up thinking it would be run and gun, and if we do that, we just feed them. We’ve got to be more patient than them.”
Tampa Bay had to play it tight Wednesday after rookie goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy came out for warmups as the starter and Bishop was nowhere to be found. A breakout night for the Hawks? Didn’t happen.
No disrespect to Vasilevskiy, who has World Junior Championships and KHL time already on his resume at age 20. But the Hawks peppered Bishop with 38 shots in Monday’s 3-2 defeat. It was reasonable to think they would go for a quick kill here.
Instead they were tentative and the Lightning were air-tight, standing up at their blue line and forechecking with voracity. The Blackhawks were futile with their persistent forays to the middle of the ice and had two shots on goal in the first period – two! When the game hit the halfway point, they had just six.
“To a certain degree you could see Bishop fighting something throughout the series,” said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, who opened the scoring at 6:40 of the second period with his first goal of the final. “But obviously he’s played through it. He’s played well.”
It’s really hard to figure what’s up with the Blackhawks in this series. They were fortunate to win Game One and have been pretty much in hang-on mode for the three games since. They won Wednesday with just 19 shots on goal.
“The first was a weird period there. We had some chances, didn’t seem to get the pucks on net,” said Patrick Kane. “The second was back and forth a little bit. When we get in those third periods and we know it’s a tie game, that’s not a bad position to be in. … At that point in time, it was time to bear down, we wanted to make sure we played good defense, try to stay patient and get opportunities when they present themselves.”
It was about making a play and the Hawks did it off a faceoff, the one area where they have been dominant in this series.
Chicago has a monstrous 139-97 advantage on draws in the series, including 38-20 Wednesday. Richards won the key one, helping to screen off the Lightning. Kane scooted into the circle and flipped a backhand pass to Saad in the left side of the circle. And Saad did exactly what the Blackhawks weren’t doing nearly enough of in this game – going to the net.
Tampa Bay defenseman Jason Garrison inexplicably backed off and Anton Stralman couldn’t cut Saad off in front of Vasilevskiy. Saad skated through the crease from left to right and partially fanned on a backhand but it had enough oomph to sneak through Vasilevskiy’s legs as the building erupted and “Chelsea Dagger” pounded at heavy metal decibels.
“I was really pretty lucky,” Saad said. “I just saw space going to the net, tried to drive and create some chaos. Goalie made a good play with poking the puck. It bounced around my feet and I finally found it to my stick. I just tried to get some wood on it and get it to the net and found a way through his legs.”
“We know they like to play that man-on-man system,” Kane said. “If you can beat your man to the net, you could have a chance to get there and have a good opportunity. That’s what ‘Saader’ did. Their D-man pulled out, so he took it strong and got one by him there.”
Corey Crawford made it stand up with some strong saves in the third, including from in tight on Steven Stamkos in the final 30 seconds. Just before that, Stamkos seemed to have the tying goal on his stick, with an open net in front but Brent Seabrook got a piece of the puck and it skittered wide.
Kane had his best game of the series with the assist on the winner, three shots on goal and seven attempts. Toews had his goal and Stamkos was dangerous with seven attempts, even though he’s still without a goal.
As for Bishop, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said he knew his starter would be out once he arrived at the rink for the game. It was a big spot for Vasilevskiy and the 20-year-old did fine.
“If you tell me we’re going to come in and he’s going to give up two goals, that’s a hell of a job in my book,” Cooper said.
The Lightning have to hope Bishop can be ready by Saturday, which would be five days after his previous game. Cooper wouldn’t commit to that game but said, “ ‘Bish’ is going to play again in this series, there’s no question.”
This one is so close, it’s hard to believe there won’t be three more games.