Cup Final as even as it gets
With series tied, 2-2, Lightning and Blackhawks show little separation in tough contests.
TAMPA, Fla. — This is the definition of a close Stanley Cup Final:
The Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks have each won two games. All were decided by one goal, only the third time in NHL history the opening four games of the Final were decided by that margin.
They’ve each scored nine goals and had 11 power plays, with Chicago holding a 2-1 edge in power-play goals. Each team has blocked 60 shots. Neither has led by more than one goal in any game.
As players enjoyed a break Thursday before preparing for Game 5, to be played Saturday at Amalie Arena, they paid respect to each other’s efforts in getting to this point.
“It’s really tough for either team to separate themselves from the other in any of these games, which makes for entertaining hockey games,” Chicago center Jonathan Toews said. “I think both teams are equally deserving so far. I think it’s just going to come down to, as they say, who wants it more, who is going to fight and work for those bounces.”
Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness, substituting for Coach Jon Cooper at a news conference in Tampa, said the Final has been so close because the teams have different strengths that are similarly valued.
“What we lack in their Stanley Cup experience and gold medals at the Olympics we make up for in our youthful enthusiasm and speed,” Bowness said. “For either one of us to think we’re going to go out there and control 60 minutes of the game, this is my opinion, I just don’t see it happening.
“You have to give credit to both teams. We’re good hockey clubs. We’re not going to let them play their game for 60 minutes. They’re not going to let us play our game for 60 minutes. I’m not surprised.”
The element of surprise comes from both teams’ getting little scoring from some of their biggest offensive threats.
Chicago forwards Mari- an Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane have no goals in the Final, and Toews scored his first Wednesday, a series-tying 2-1 victory for the Blackhawks at the United Center.
“These guys are way better than anybody imagined at checking and trying to frustrate you,” said Blackhawks forward Brad Richards, who has one goal. “We’re learning that mentality that it might be 2-1 games the rest of the way.”
Tampa Bay has gotten no goals from Steven Stamkos, who scored 43 during the season and seven in the previous three rounds. Stamkos had two pointblank shots in the final minutes Wednesday, after goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was pulled for an extra skater. Stamkos started to celebrate after one attempt but Chicago goalie Corey Crawford held on.
“I expect more from myself. Hopefully the chances keep coming. You know eventually they’re going to go,” Stamkos said. “No one said this was going to be easy. It’s not easy to win the Stanley Cup. You put so much sacrifice, so much time, so much effort, it’s really a mental grind and a test of everyone’s will, what their sacrifice is at this time of the year.”
Each team has been able to make the most of its depth. Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop suffered an undisclosed injury in Game 2, started Game 3, but was unable to play in Game 4 and was replaced by Vasilevskiy. The 20-year-old Russian acquitted himself well but his teammates couldn’t do much against the Blackhawks’ staunch defensive effort. Bowness said Bishop’s status remains day to day and that the goalie will be examined Friday by team medical personnel.
The Blackhawks couldn’t play defenseman Johnny Oduya much in Game 3 after he suffered an upper-body injury, but he recovered Wednesday to play 25 minutes 45 seconds and record a team-best five blocks. They’ve gotten two solid games from Trevor van Riemsdyk and nearly got a goal Wednesday from 40year-old defenseman Kimmo Timonen, who replaced a shaky Kyle Cumiskey.
When two teams are so competitive at such a high level, the difference could come down to one break, one bounce. “The fact that nobody’s had a two-goal lead after four games speaks volumes about what we’re talking about here,” Blackhawks Coach Joel Quenneville said. “Hey, it’s fast, it’s quick, it can be unpredictable. It’s two good hockey teams going at it. I think whether it’s going to be a great save or a great play, you know, a fluky goal, I know both teams leave it out there.”
PATRICK SHARP, left, of Chicago congratulates Jonathan Toews for his first goal of this Final.