There hasn't been much to differentiate the Chicago Blackhawks from the Tampa Bay Lighting through the first four games of the Stanley Cup Final. Each contest has been decided by a single goal, making for a thrilling and claustrophobic series played so tightly that the difference between hoisting the Cup and an endless summer of regret could be a shattered stick, a lucky bounce or an untimely penalty.
But the pivotal Game 5 set for Saturday night at Tampa's Amalie Arena doesn't have to come down to getting the breaks. In fact, it's crying out for a breakthrough performance.
It all comes down to who's ready to deliver it.
There are two players in particular who have a yet to put their stamp on the Final: Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks and Steven Stamkos of the Lightning. Both have well-earned reputations as lethal finishers, yet neither has found the back of the net in this low-scoring series.
Take Kane, a wizard with the puck whose magic has deserted him at the worst possible time. Checked into submission by Tampa's relentless defense, he's become a perimeter player who settles for dump-ins at the blueline and long-distance shot attempts.
“He's had a couple good looks last game,” coach Joel Quenneville said in defense of Kane on Friday. “He's had chances in all games. I think when your top guys go through stretches they don't score, I still think they absorb the other team's ... top defensive guys. Eventually they're going to get their turns.”
“I think he goes through stretches where he doesn't produce, but ...all of a sudden he hits the scoreboard and then it's tough to keep him off it.”
The explanation for Kane's struggles during this rough stretch may be his lack of possession. He's a player who thrives when he has the puck on his stick, particularly on zone entries. But with the Lightning denying him the time and space he normally carves out, Kane has to change his approach in order to make himself a factor.
He's done it before. During Chicago's last run to the Stanley Cup in 2013 Kane was held off the board for the first three games of the Final by Boston's smothering defense. But he found a way in Game 5, scoring a pair of goals that were dripping with grease in a series-shifting 3-1 victory. On the first goal, he pounced on the rebound of Johnny Oduya shot that skittered to the side of Tuukka Rask and tucked a backhander just inside the left post. He notched the winner early in the second, following up a Bryan Bickell wraparound attempt by knocking the rebound out of midair with his backhand swing.
Neither was a classic shimmy-and-shake Kane tally that we've seen so often on the highlight reels. They were the goals that were there to be had in that tight-checking series and he did what he had to do to earn them. There's a lesson there.
Stamkos, to his credit, has already committed to a grittier game. With his deadly one-timer nullified by the strong positioning of Chicago's defense he's countered with a reliable willingness to battle for space down low. Each of his three prime scoring chances in Game 4 came from within a couple feet of the blue paint, including one jaw-dropping opportunity in the dying seconds that was deflected away by Brent Seabrook.
But the puck's not going in
"Just bad, bad bounces, puck luck, whatever you want to call it," Stamkos said of his slump.
Fair enough. It happens, even to elite scorers. But when something's not working, you've got to change it up. The answer for Stamkos here isn't positioning as much as it is volume. If he wants to improve his chances in Game 5 he has to become a more selfish player who thinks shoot first, pass second.
Too many times against the Hawks Stamkos has looked to his teammates rather than call his own number, leading to broken plays or low-grade chances for Valterri Filppula. After landing five shots on net in the opener, Stamkos has settled for two in each of the past three games. That's not enough.
But you know how it is with players like this. You can't keep them down forever. Tonight offers a chance for one of them is going to break through and bend the series to his will. We'll see who wants it most.