CHICAGO — In a series where the margins of victory have seemed razor thin, the plotlines and intrigue between the Lightning and Blackhawks grow thicker with every game. With Chicago’s 2–1 win on Wednesday night at home, both teams have now scored nine goals on about the same number of shots in the 2-2 series; they have each won a game on enemy turf. Even in the battle of Stanley Cup gamesmanship, the Lightning and Blackhawks are equally split.
After keeping mum on the status of his hobbled goalie Ben Bishop in advance of Wednesday night’s game, Lightning coach Jon Cooper surprised everyone by sending 20-year-old backup Andrei Vasilevskiy out to lead the team for warm-ups. Two nights after he gutted through a 4–3 win, Bishop did not even dress. Not to be outdone, however, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville showed no indication until puck drop that he would put his forward lines through a blender.
“Whether it’s the element of surprise,” Quenneville said, “I guess we’re 50/50 tonight.”
The Blackhawks’ new combinations, which Quenneville said were meant to create more offensive balance, led to an exceptionally unbalanced start to Game 4. For the first 20 minutes, Chicago essentially gave Tampa Bay the run of the play. Taking three penalties, including an uncharacteristic offensive zone high-stick by Jonathan Toews that negated a power play, Chicago once again assumed the defensive posture that it has become familiar with. After the first period, the Blackhawks managed two shots on Vasilevskiy, neither within 35 feet of the net.
“Maybe [the line juggling] was it. I don’t know,” Chicago center Brad Richards said. “For whatever reason we were just stuck in mud again.”
It’s become a familiar pattern for the Blackhawks, who before Wednesday night had not scored the first goal against Tampa Bay and held a lead for a total of only 6:19 through three games. But with a stand-up opening period from goalie Corey Crawford, who finished the game with 24 saves, Chicago managed to escape a lackluster start in a scoreless tie.
“Sometimes you get in situations where you just need to get out of the period and regroup,” Richards said, echoing words the Lightning were saying just 48 hours earlier. “You have those nights. The good thing is we’re experienced enough and good enough that we got through it.”
Ultimately, Quenneville’s new line combinations got the job done. Sharp, who struggled this season and saw his ice time drop like the Russian ruble, rejoined Toews and Marian Hossa on the de facto top line, and had one of Chicago’s two shots in the first period. In the second, Sharp took a turn as catalyst, gaining a breakaway early on. Aiming for Vasilevskiy’s glove, the winger rang one off the post. But as deflating as it could have been, he helped the Blackhawks break through less than 15 seconds later. Flipping a loose rebound in front of the goal to Toews backdoor, Sharp helped the Blackhawks to that elusive 1–0 lead on just the team’s fifth shot on Vasilevskiy.
But as they have all postseason, the Lightning, of course, responded five minutes later, when left wing Alex Killorn cashed in on a beautiful pass from center Valtteri Filppula from behind the net. With the score tied, they stayed close to Chicago, again limiting their opponent's chances down low. But off a face-off play at 6:22 of the third, the Blackhawks found just enough space in the Lightning’s tight structure to find a winning goal. Battling for a face-off win in the offensive zone, Richards got the puck to Patrick Kane, who tapped it to Brandon Saad, the 22-year-old winger who had 23 goals and 53 points this season. Making a power move straight to the net—and helped by the fact that Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman was slowed a step—Saad slipped a bouncing backhander under Vasilevskiy’s pad.
The goal, much like the game, wasn’t pretty, but at this time of year the aesthetics of winning tend to mean less and less. “They’re way better than anybody thought at [checking],” Richards said. “Everybody talks about how offensive they are, but that’s the tightest checking team we’ve played all year. ... We’ve talked about that now and figured out we need to be just as patient. If it’s ugly and 1–0 like that, then we’ll take it.”
Perhaps that is, in fact, Tampa Bay’s greatest mind game of all. The Lightning are not the team Chicago thought they were. Now it comes down to a best of three.