The Tampa Bay Lightning haven’t just taken control of the Stanley Cup Final with back-to-back wins over the Chicago Blackhawks. They’re winning the hearts and minds of the hockey world with a high-skill, fast-paced style of play that any fan would be thrilled to see their favorite team emulate. And they’re doing it with a group of players whose readiness to become the new face of the sport becomes more clear with each passing game.
Unless you collect your mail in Chicagoland, how can you not pull for Ben Bishop, the Lightning keeper whose health became an issue after he twice pulled himself from Game 2?
“We talked long and hard if he could play tonight,” Cooper said after Bishop led his team to a 3–2 win in Game 3 on Monday night. “You can read when guys are sitting there, saying, 'Coach, I’ll go for you.' He said, 'Give me the net.' I knew we were going to be okay.”
Whatever is ailing the netminder it’s clear that the 48-hour mystery leading up to Game 3 was no ruse designed to baffle the Blackhawks. Bishop is obviously hurt. It might not be Bobby Baun’s broken ankle in 1964 or Patrice Bergeron’s laundry list of fractures and punctures in 2013, but it is testing a deep well of courage in the 28-year-old netminder. You could see it in each creaky recovery from the butterfly position, each slight hitch in his side-to-side movement, each time he relied on the paddle of his stick as a cane.
Forget day-to-day. The way he was hobbling early on, Bishop was minute-to-minute. But through it all he stood awkwardly, painfully tall, holding the ravenous Hawks at bay as they turned the first period into an extended power play drill. By the time the second period rolled around, a point by which he’d stopped 18 of 19 Chicago shots, the result of the game almost became secondary to the larger story that Bishop was crafting. It was like watching an endurance run stumbling down the home stretch of a brutal course. Win or lose, you just wanted to see him cross the finish line.
Bishop did that and then some. He battled ferociously, keeping the score tied at 1–1 through 40 trying minutes before delivering a relatively comfortable looking final 20. He finished with 36 saves on the night to lead the Bolts to victory.
Then there’s Victor Hedman, who is shaping up as the leading candidate to claim the Conn Smythe Trophy if Tampa Bay picks up two more wins.
The 24-year-old blueliner has spent the past three games doing his best Duncan Keith impression—if only Keith had been blessed with a 6' 6", 230-pound body and the ability to skate like Scott Niedermayer. He’s played upwards of 26 minutes in each, deftly managing his primary task of shutting down Jonathan Toews and his revolving cast of wingers.
That Joel Quenneville felt compelled to shake up Chicago's top line tells you all you need to know about Hedman's effectiveness in the series.
“Victor, he's just blossomed the last couple years," Cooper said. "He's really learned how to defend. I think just the way we play the game and our structure is kind of tailor-made for him. He's got pretty much free rein with me. He's got my trust."
The key to Hedman's success has been how few of those minutes he spends defending in his own zone. His ability to track down pucks and get the Bolts moving the other way in transition is what's allowing the Lightning to beat the Hawks at their own high-speed, puck-possession game.
Consider that sizzling 125-foot slap pass that set up Ryan Callahan's opening tally 5:09 into the game, a play taken directly from Keith's repertoire. Then there was his breathtaking assist on the game-winner. Joining the rush from his own blueline, Hedman bulled his way past Chicago's Brent Seabrook then angled toward the boards to buy space for Cedric Paquette who was charging through the middle. An instant later, his deft cross-ice feed was off Paquette's stick and buried in the back of the Chicago net.
With four assists in the past two games, the stopper has become unstoppable.
“Everyone’s getting to see what a special player he is right now,” Tampa center Brian Boyle said. “We get to see it every day. We’re spoiled to have him on our team."
And it's not just the stars that make so it easy to like this team. There's J.T. Brown, the undrafted winger who consistently gums up opposition advances with his pesky forechecking. There's Alex Killorn (say, have you heard he went to Harvard?), whose two-way excellence was highlighted by that improbable goal he scored in Game 1. There's Paquette, who has shut down the brilliant Toews with his diligent checking and has chipped in a pair of critical goals. And there's Anton Stralman, whose game film has become required viewing for every kid who aspires to make the NHL as a defender.
And while each of those players is committed to defense first, there are no reins holding them back offensively. When Tampa is executing, their goal is to outscore their opponent, not to hold them to fewer goals.
How can you not love a team like that?
The numbers game
• The Blackhawks-Lightning series is only the third Stanley Cup Final since 1927 that has had more than one game with a tiebreaking goal scored in the final five minutes of regulation. The others: Toronto (Bob Pulford, Game 1) and Detroit (Alex Delvecchio, Game 3) in 1964, and Carolina (Rod Brind’Amour, Game 1) and Edmonton (Ryan Smyth, Game 3) in 2006.
• The two goals scored by the Blackhawks and Lightning 13 seconds apart in Game 3 were only three ticks off the NHL record for the fastest two tallies, set by the Maple Leafs and Red Wings in 1936 and tied by the Canadiens and Maple Leafs in 1947.
• The first three games in the Stanley Cup Final have been decided by one goal for the first time since 2010 (Blackhawks vs. Flyers). The last time the first four had one-goal margins was in 1968 (Canadiens vs. Blues). Eight of the past 10 games between the Lightning and Blackhawks, dating back to March 9, 2011, have been settled by one tally.
• Yeah, that hockey game was pretty good but this was the real highlight of the night. Gotta love that Eichel kid!
• For some prospects, being drafted into the NHL leads to a career fork in the road. Here’s a look at the paths from which a pair of potential first rounders have to choose.
• Jaromir Jagr explains why his former teammate Mario Lemieux returned to the NHL after three years of retirement in 2000. Well, his version of the story anyway.
• Hockey Canada is helping this former goaltender work his way back to the NHL.