A stickler for accuracy will tell you that tonight’s Game 4 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA) isn’t a must-win for Chicago.
But the Blackhawks know better.
Sure, they could still recover after another loss to claim the next three games and capture the Stanley Cup, but the long road back from a 3-1 series deficit is one they do not want to travel. So getting this thing knotted up at two games apiece tonight at the United Center is mission critical.
To get there, they’ll need to make some adjustments that go beyond adapting a do-or-die attitude one game early. As well as the Hawks have played in this series—and they have been terrific for the most part—changes have to be made. Here are four that could spark a reversal of fortunes:
• Bryan Bickell didn’t seem to impress coach Joel Quenneville much during his Cup final debut in Game 3. The lumbering winger played just 9:53, the second-lightest load given to any Chicago forward, and outside of a team-high four hits he didn’t get much accomplished with that limited opportunity.
Not hard to understand why, though. While the Hawks were focused on getting the obviously lame Ben Bishop moving side-to-side, they were playing the antithesis of Bickell’s north/south style.
Maybe that's why Quenneville is looking to change things up. Bickell, who is not the most accomplished finisher—zero goals in 18 games paints a pretty accurate image of his struggles this spring—is heading back to the press box in favor of Kris Versteeg. "I think he gives us a threat offensively," Quenneville said at his game day press briefing. "Defensively aware, strength in the puck area. He can make some plays. I think he can add to some of our offense."
Maybe. Maybe not. Versteeg, who has just one goal to show for nine postseason games, isn't exactly a shot of adrenaline to Chicago's sluggish heart. But he does bring more speed than Bickell, along with a willingness to get into a netminder’s kitchen and create chaos down low. Rebounds, screens, discreet fouls ... there are any number of ways he can make his presence felt, and any number of ways he can make life miserable for Bishop without being the guy who lights the lamp himself.
• So far the Lightning have shown a greater willingness to play the ugly game than the Hawks. Look at the spirit-crushing tying goal scored by Ondrej Palat just 13 seconds after Chicago had gained the lead in Game 3, or Tyler Johnson’s crease-crashing/momentum-shifting goal in Tampa Bay’s Game 2 victory. Outside of Andrew Shaw, whose nose is always dirty, the Bolts’ smaller, skilled forwards have more consistently and more effectively gotten to the net than Chicago’s strikers. Credit Tampa Bay’s control of the middle of the ice in its own zone, led by the indomitable Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, for part of that edge, but also give the Bolts credit for a more obvious sense of desperation. That part of the rink is all about want, and right now the Lightning want it more than the Hawks.
If that’s going to change tonight, it can’t just be Bickell or Shaw or Brandon Saad setting up shop down low. The skill guys have to make that commitment as well. Not that Patrick Kane is going to set up shop in the crease, but he can show more determination to get to the net either to follow up his own shots (he had three in the first 10 minutes of Game 3) or to hunt for the free bunnies that Bishop has a tendency to leave lying around. The same can be said of Patrick Sharp, who’s been carrying a piano on his back throughout the series, as well as Jonathan Toews, whose play in Games 2 and 3 silenced all those Yzerman/Messier comparisons that were floating around after the Anaheim series.
• And while the Hawks are taking aim at Bishop tonight, they might want to concentrate their efforts down low. As good as the “move him side-to-side” approach sounds on paper, it was clear in Game 3 that the real struggle for the 6' 7" netminder was getting vertical not horizontal. Focus on forcing Bishop down to his knees as often as possible with an eye on creating those second-chance opportunities up high if he continues to be sluggish in his recovery.
• Give Trevor van Riemsdyk a chance to play a larger role. The rookie defender played an uneventful 9:01 in Game 3—a high compliment for a player making his postseason debut—and seemed to gain more confidence as the game wore on. He was thrust into a larger role by the apparent upper-body injury to Johnny Oduya and responded with simple, smart hockey.
The question now: Can van Riemsdyk build on that performance now that the adrenalin has worn off? The expectation is that Oduya will be ready for Game 4 and his veteran presence will be critical to Chicago’s chances. At the same time, van Riemsdyk brings a more offensive mindset and the ability to make things happen in transition. If the Hawks learned anything from Tampa Bay’s past two victories it’s that their focus should be on scoring more goals than the Lightning, not ensuring that their opponents score fewer, so van Riemsdyk pushes them in the right direction. Get him the puck and let him show what he can do.
The numbers game
• The Lightning have scored the opening goal in four straight games since Game 7 of their Eastern Conference Finals series vs. the Rangers and are 11-1 in that scenario during the playoffs. Their lone loss was to the Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. Chicago is 9-1 when scoring first this postseason.
• At 7-2 Chicago still owns the best home record during these playoffs and has outscored its opponents 32-22 at the United Center. The Lightning have the best road mark (8-3) and hold a 31-18 scoring edge on enemy ice.
• The team that won Game 3 after a split of the first two games of the final has gone on to win the Stanley Cup 21 out of 26 times since the series became a best-of-seven in 1939. Since 2009, the Blackhawks have come back from a 2-1 deficit in games to win six of the nine playoff series in which they fell behind by such a margin.
• Can Hulk Hogan call himself a Tampa Bay Lightning fan if he doesn't know the name of the team's coach? CM Punk doesn't think so.
• Trades to make, players to draft, but the Maple Leafs are content to operate without a GM.
• The NHLPA is creating a fund to help retired players make the transition back to civilian life through education. A highly welcome, and long overdue move.