Black­hawks step up when it counts

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - HE­LENE EL­LIOTT

CHICAGO — The goal that put the Chicago Black­hawks in po­si­tion to win the Stan­ley Cup on Mon­day was scored by An­toine Ver­mette, who was a healthy scratch once dur­ing the West­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nals, off the re­bound of a shot by Kris Ver­steeg, who had been scratched sev­eral times dur­ing the play­offs.

Their first goal in that game against the Tampa Bay Light­ning on Satur­day was scored by Pa­trick Sharp, with an as­sist to Teuvo Ter­a­vainen, also a healthy scratch once dur­ing

the West fi­nals. Goal­tender Corey Craw­ford, rel­e­gated to backup sta­tus three times dur­ing the Black­hawks’ first-round se­ries against Nashville, made 31 saves to pre­serve a 2-1 victory and turn Game 6 at the United Cen­ter into a po­ten­tial Cup clincher.

Get­ting this far in the play­offs is about tal­ent, depth, en­durance and adapt­ing. Black­hawks Coach Joel Quen­neville’s abil­ity to re­act and re­trench — he re­stored Ver­mette, Ver­steeg and Ter­a­vainen to the lineup and gave them prom­i­nent roles — is a key rea­son the Black­hawks are poised to end a thrillingly close Cup Fi­nal.

As they did in win­ning the last two games of the West fi­nals against the Ducks, the Black­hawks are get­ting bet­ter as the Cup Fi­nal un­folds. Much of that comes from the char­ac­ter of their core play­ers, seven of whom hope to be fit­ted for their third Cup rings.

“I think in play­offs you’re not just play­ing the op­po­si­tion, you play against your­self, too, as a team,” de­fense­man Johnny Oduya said Sun­day. “You’ve got to be able to go through th­ese patches where things are not go­ing your way, it’s up and down, and still be able as a group to come out and get some re­sults. I think that’s a strength of our team.”

Quen­neville’s hand is very much be­hind that push to peak at the right time.

“Joel has done an in­cred­i­ble job of, I think, just gaug­ing where we’re at through­out some of th­ese se­ries, know­ing what our team needs to do, what look we need to change as far as matchups or lineup com­bi­na­tions, things like that,” cen­ter Jonathan Toews said. “I think he iden­ti­fies things that will make us stronger go­ing into the later games in the se­ries …

“We get into th­ese later games where we have the chance to play games that are more mean­ing­ful, I think that’s when we play our best.”

Quen­neville has out­coached his Tampa Bay coun­ter­part, Jon Cooper, and has been able to get matchups he wants even on the road. The Light­ning has held its own, but cen­ter Steven Stamkos hasn’t been able to fight through the Black­hawks’ sti­fling de­fense, and the line of On­drej Palat, Nikita Kucherov and Tyler John­son has been blanked the past two games, 2-1 Chicago vic­to­ries. Kucherov, in­ci­den­tally, might play Mon­day af­ter hit­ting his head on the post Satur­day and miss­ing most of that game.

“I think we’re a grow­ing type of team,” Tampa Bay de­fense­man An­ton Stral­man said, a valid point. He and his team­mates are learn­ing the ex­tremes they must reach in the play­offs. The Black­hawks al­ready know what it takes and are putting that into prac­tice as they get bet­ter ev­ery game.

“A lot of it is our top guys rise to the chal­lenge. The big­ger the game, whether they have a set­tling in­flu­ence in the locker room, their line­mates, they make guys around them bet­ter, the way they pre­pare,” Quen­neville said. “They know it’s an im­por­tant game. The big­ger the set­ting, they rise to that chal­lenge. It’s a com­pli­ment to them.

“I think our team game re­lies on con­sis­tency, pre­dictabil­ity, not wa­ver­ing too much. That helps, as well.”

Stamkos said he wants to be “a guy that can step up.” He added, “There’s two games sched­uled left in the sea­son. We can be part of that,” he said of a pos­si­ble Game 7 on Wed­nes­day at Tampa.

Cooper said the Light­ning needs Stamkos to rise to the oc­ca­sion, “and I have no doubt he will.” The whole team must go from grow­ing to grown. “I’ve loved our will. We’ve set a bar for us that’s been fan­tas­tic,” Cooper said. “But now, for Game 6, we’re go­ing to have to rise above that. We have to find a way.”

The Black­hawks ap­pear to have found it. They won the Cup on their first try in 2010 and 2013, and this time, they can do it on home ice for the first time since 1938. The buzz around the build­ing will be pal­pa­ble. “It’s not just an­other game, but that’s the way we’ve got to try to ap­proach it,” de­fense­man Brent Seabrook said. “It’s just an­other game, a hockey game. We’ve got to go out there and re­mem­ber that, try to be at our best.”

Their best should be more than good enough. he­lene.el­liott@la­times.com Twit­ter: @he­le­nenothe­len

Mike Carl­son Getty Images

AN­TOINE VER­METTE cel­e­brates a goal in Game 5, which put Chicago in po­si­tion to win the Stan­ley Cup.

STAN­LEY CUP FI­NAL Chicago vs. Tampa Bay Black­hawks lead se­ries, 3-2

Game 6: Tonight in Chicago, 5 PDT. TV: Chan­nel 4

Mike Carl­son Getty Images

JOEL QUEN­NEVILLE of the Chicago Black­hawks has out­coached his Tampa Bay coun­ter­part, Jon Cooper, in the Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal se­ries, chang­ing line­ups and get­ting matchups he wants even on the road.

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