TAMPA, Fla. – The numbers are eerie. The Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks seem like twinsies in this Stanley Cup final.
Two wins apiece, nine goals apiece, a three-shot difference in pucks on goal, an eight-shot difference in attempts. The same number of blocks. A save percentage just three-hundredths of a point apart.
We’ve had no overtime games thus far but it pretty much feels that way for all 60 minutes, like one goal is going to mean everything. This is the first Cup final to open with four one-goal games since a Montreal sweep of St. Louis in 1968. And that was a sweep where the verdict was pretty much expected, not an up-for-grabs affair like this one.
As we head to Game Five on Saturday in Amalie Arena, here’s the stat I still can’t over: Through 240 minutes over four games, the score has either been tied or a one-goal differential for every second. Another one-goal result, guaranteed if we get our long-overdue first OT, will mark the first time all five games have been that tight since 1951.
At this point, little things become big things.
“Definitely will to win plays a part in it for sure,” Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith said here Friday. “You don’t get this far without having that character and I think this is where it has to come out as much as possible. Having said that, it’s a team game and we’re able to play our best when we’re all on the same page, working out there as a group of five.”
The Blackhawks practiced at home earlier in the day and flew south to meet the media at a downtown hotel. The Lightning, meanwhile, were hooting and hollering through their 40-minute workout in the suburban Brandon Ice Forum.
“You’ve got to get caught up in the moment, you have to embrace where we are,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper. “It’s the middle of June and we’re still playing hockey. The Stanley Cup is up for grabs in a best two‑out‑of‑three. I don’t think we should be afraid of that. I don’t think we should walk around being tense and looking at the magnitude of where we are.”
Cooper then relayed to reporters the gist of his message to his team.
“‘Guys, you know, this is the time of our lives. It’s two teams left playing in June. If we’re not having fun doing this, then why are we doing this?’ It’s been such a phenomenal experience to go through this. I remember on the plane ride home thinking” after Game Four, ‘In six days, it’s going to be over.’ How much fun, how we’ve grown together, you just don’t want the experience to end.”
Special teams could be a tipping point as the teams are a combined 3 for 22 on the power play in the series. Struggling stars snapping slumps could matter as well, as both Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos don’t have a goal.
“For either team to win, it comes down to your best players being at their best and making the difference,” said Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, who got his first of the series in Game Four. “I expect that out of myself ... We all think that way and that’s a big reason why we’ve made it this far.”
Injuries, of course, will tell another tale. Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop didn’t practice Friday and his status will be determined at Saturday’s morning skate. Andrei Vasilevskiy, who started in Game Four, will again play if Bishop can’t go.
In a series where there’s little margin between the teams, one thing that’s not close is faceoffs and it lurks as an issue for the Lightning. The Hawks’ advantage on draws is 139-97 for the series – and 112-67 over the last three games. A big reason for that is because Tampa center Tyler Johnson isn’t taking them anymore. He took exactly one draw in Game Two and none in the last two games, a clear sign he has some sort of hand injury.
The Lightning, naturally, aren’t saying anything. Hockey players are all dealing with some issue this time of year. But it’s pretty obvious it’s more than that when a goalie can barely move or get up in the crease or one of your main centermen goes two games without taking a single faceoff. You’re not talking minor ailments.
Johnson tried to deflect the talk Friday with pure silliness when referring to linemate Ondrej Palat, who has been subbing for him.
“He beat me in practice, and he’s just better than me,” Johnson said. “I’ve never been that good at faceoffs. It’s all right.”
This from a guy who won nearly 49 percent of his more than 1,100 draws this season and is now ceding to a guy who went 10 for 35 during the regular season and has been drubbed to the tune of 13-23 the last three games. Asked if he was injured, Johnson simply said, “I’m fine.”
“I think everyone’s banged up,” Johnson said. “When you play this long - I think it’s 104 games already - when you’re doing that you’re going to be bumped up a little bit but it doesn’t matter right now. It’s the Stanley Cup. There’s a maximum three games left and then you’ve got all summer to rest.”
The faceoff differential has been neutralized by the Hawks’ unwillingness to shoot at times and by their penchant for turnovers. Chicago had 38 shots on Bishop in Game Three, but is averaging just over 23 per game in the other three contests. The Hawks need more pucks to the net from this point forward. A lot more.
This Blackhawks era was marked by Cup wins on the road in Philadelphia in 2010 and Boston in 2013. A win Saturday would set the Hawks up for a chance to win one at United Center for the first time on Monday.
“You think back to the start of the year and to now where we are today,” said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville. “The guys were excited. They don’t have any more practices the rest of the year on non-gamedays, so let’s go.”
“It’s two of out three at home. If you tell any of us that at the beginning of the year, we take that in a heartbeat,” Stamkos said. “Guys aren’t tense. They’re excited about this opportunity. ... It’s one of the hardest things to do in pro sports, finish off a series and beat another team to win a Stanley Cup, especially a team that’s been there a couple times and knows what it takes.”