CHICAGO — A step short of his locker stall and before everyone swarmed around in search for answers, Jonathan Toews stopped and brought an opaque, slate-colored water bottle to his lips. The Chicago Blackhawks captain took a long draw and set his refreshment on the bench. It was presumably the sort of viscous, hydrating goop that most hockey players consume postgame to replenish their systems. It does not taste particularly great. Here then was a point of a kind, on a night loaded with opportunity but freckled by frustrating moments: By now Toews and his cohorts are accustomed to things that are hard to swallow.
“It is what it is,” Toews said, following a twisty 3–2 Game 3 loss to the Lightning on Monday. “What are you going to do, get frustrated and stop working if things don’t go your way? It’s not how you get to this point.”
So here comes the worry, the panic, the suffocating sense of doom that sets in when a team blows the home ice it previously stole and finds itself down two games to one in a Stanley Cup Final. Here it comes, for everyone but the Blackhawks. The back-to-back losses were their first such matching set this postseason. That feels a little coincidental and a little bit alarming, yes. But there is a reason the United Center’s home dressing room was glum yet not grim, agitated yet not exasperated. A roster boasting several multiple-Cup winners generally does not get alarmed about much of anything. Without an ability to manage emotion and ride the ebbs as easy as the swells, hockey seasons usually end well before June.
Still, managing emotion doesn’t mean excising it. There is cause for the Blackhawks to be nervous, and to use that nervousness to their benefit, because it’s difficult to know what comes next for them. It stood to reason that Chicago would not be beaten at its own high-skill, high-speed, puck-possession game, and here the Lightning are doing a reasonable job of just that, replete with sizzling stretch passes that lead to sick scores and defensemen spearheading odd-man rushes. The wobbly, injured goalie tending to Tampa Bay’s net somehow couldn’t be picked apart by the home team’s offensive surgeons. The Blackhawks missed empty nets. For the tenth time this postseason, they scored and then allowed the opposition to match the goal within the next two minutes. They got long-awaited production from their top two lines, even finishing a power play, and it wasn’t enough.
When Chicago figures a team out, that team usually stays figured out. The bruising Anaheim Ducks and goaltender Frederik Andersen, to cite the most recent example, essentially got worse with each minute of the Western Conference Final. And it may be that the answers are coming for the Blackhawks, just as they did when Chicago was the poorer team through three games in that Anaheim series. On the long view, it may even be that this particular team isn’t built for dominance like its predecessors. Whatever the context, the solutions just aren’t here yet against Tampa Bay. Until the answers arrive, a young opponent’s confidence blooms and threatens to match or surpass a champion’s resolve.
“It’s frustrating,” Toews said. “A lot of things we did today gave us the feeling we were going to come out on top, with the effort we gave. Just a couple little bad habits that ended up hurting us. We’re all responsible for that.”
A somnambulant start, a couple of missed scoring opportunities and the occasional lapse that produced odd-man rushes you’ll eventually pay for—all of those indeed counterbalanced Chicago’s 19-shot first period and killing of 86 seconds of a 5-on-3 for the Lightning. It was all of 13 seconds, though, that suggested most strongly that this situation is far too tenuous for anyone’s liking.
Early in the third period, a dazzling burst of offensive cycling and passing led to Marian Hossa finding Brandon Saad unoccupied in the slot, and from there Saad buried a shot top shelf for a go-ahead goal that made the score 2–1 at the 4:14 mark. If it was far from decisive, given the margin and the timing, it was still the sort of moment from which a championship team must squeeze every bit of use. It must galvanize one side as much as it depresses the other. And 13 seconds after that score, with the charge hardly faded from the 22,336 fans on hand, the Lightning wiped it all away with a goal of their own.
“For sure when you grab momentum after a big goal, you want to continue with that,” Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford said. “Stuff happens. You gotta move past that.”
“Certainly,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said somewhat less generously, “you can’t give up that type of goal.”
No, you can’t, and yet Chicago has done so on 10 occasions now in these playoffs. It’s instructive to point out that nine previous such calamities didn’t cost the Blackhawks a spot in the Stanley Cup Final. It’s also mindboggling that it keeps happening. At best, it invites disaster. At worst, it’s insidious enough to undercut everything. For a night, that is precisely what happened: Tampa Bay may not have tallied the game-winner until more than 12 minutes had passed, but the game changed irrevocably in a sequence that didn’t have to happen. The Blackhawks, very simply, should know better. “Usually this team with a lead in the third period, we do a good job,” center Brad Richards said. “Tonight we didn’t.”
Hysterics were nowhere to be found on Monday night with a team that survived two elimination games just one round hence. But if some unease eroded the self-assurance that Chicago surfed on to reach this position again, maybe that’s for the best. The Lightning are beating them at their own game, and even when they’re not, the Blackhawks seem to be maddeningly off-target as often as they are emphatically on point.
“We’ll use that, find that anger and emotion we need,” Toews said. “It is what it is. We’ve run into really good goaltenders in series in the past, and we just chip away, we keep working, we have that patience. And eventually we find ways to open the floodgates a little bit. That’s what we have to focus on.”
Maybe you can’t hoist a Cup after three games, but it can begin to slip out of your grasp if you’re not careful, and maybe just a little annoyed.