Steven Stamkos’ slump, holes in Chicago's defense among key issues facing Lightning and Blackhawks before Game 5 of Stanley Cup Final.
Some quick off-day thoughts as we look ahead to Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA):
• The Lightning are earning raves for their defensive work in the series. That might not be a good thing.
“These guys are way better than anybody imagined at checking and trying to frustrate you,” forward Brad Richards said after his Blackhawks knocked off the Bolts 2–1 in Game 4 on Wednesday night. “We’re learning that mentality that it might be 2-1 games the rest of the way.”
If that’s the way it plays out, then it’s advantage Blackhawks. As well as that defensive posture served Tampa Bay in Games 5 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and as important as it was in Game 4 against Chicago with rookie goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to protect, it hasn’t provided a path to success in this series. The two games in which the Bolts have played it tight ended up in losses. The Lightning have been most effective when they’ve upped the danger level, challenging the Hawks to keep up with them, so it will be interesting to see how conservatively they approach Game 5. If they choose to hang back, abandoning the style that they played all season, they allow Chicago to dictate the pace and have to settle for chances on the counter-attack. That doesn’t sound like a winning plan.
• Hard to tell what’s more surprising: That the Lightning are tied after four games while Vasilevskiy is playing or that they’ve matched the Blackhawks while Steven Stamkos has been a non-factor. The NHL’s second-leading goal scorer during the regular season has yet to register a single point in the series and is now mired in a six-game scoreless streak, double his previous longest drought of the year. But as coach Jon Cooper pointed out after the game, it’s not so much that Stamkos has been invisible as he has been unlucky. “What I like to see from Stammer is he got his looks, they just didn’t go in for him,” the coach said. “You don’t keep him down forever. He’s gone through this before. He went through this a little bit in the Detroit series, then bounced back for us. I just like the fact he’s getting himself in the position to score. They just didn’t go in tonight.”
That’s a fair assessment. Stamkos is maybe not getting open as often as he’d like, but he’s getting the puck in good spots. You have to wonder, though, if his failure to score is eating into his head. There was that chance he had to the side of Corey Crawford in the first period that he totally muffed, and then that wide-open look in the dying seconds of the game that somehow hit Brent Seabrook's stick instead of the back of the twine. Those are opportunities that Stamkos buries during the regular season. And it’s getting to the point in this series where chances stop being a consolation prize. The Bolts need him to finish.
• Speaking of Seabrook, he had an uncharacteristically brutal game last night. Two unnecessary penalties and a third that was about to be called when Alex Killorn scored, too many lost puck battles and three official giveaways (although my unofficial tally tagged him with six). All was forgotten after he got a piece of Stamkos’s tying bid, but Seabrook has to be better in Game 5, especially when he’s paired with one of the unloved fifth and sixth defenders as a stabilizer.
• As if the eye-test wasn’t enough to reveal how thoroughly Victor Hedman is dominating this series, there are plenty of #fancystats to strengthen the case. Hedman was the top possession player in the contest at 70.4%, on the ice for 13 more attempts made by the Lightning than the Blackhawks despite being matched up against Jonathan Toews and his line for most of his night. Tampa Bay’s rising star was held off the scoreboard after posting consecutive two-point games, but did land three shots on net thanks to that uncanny ability to create space for himself with his speed and positioning. He’s been worth the price of admission all series long.
• What a Cup final Ryan Callahan is having. He was terrific again last night, winning puck battles, blocking shots and making life miserable for Chicago’s defenders with his physical commitment. And despite getting eight of his nine starts in the defensive zone, he still managed to post the second-highest possession numbers on the Lightning at 62.5%. Might be tough to justify the $6 million the Bolts paid him based on his regular season performance, but he’s proving to be full value in these playoffs.
• That Johnny Oduya suited up after suffering some kind of injury late in Game 3 is a testament to his courage, as is the fact that he played 25:45, second only to Duncan Keith's 29:07 for the Hawks. But it sure looked like the Lightning’s early commitment to get the puck deep into his corner and then hammer away on him was paying off toward the end of the game. Oduya’s decision making deteriorated and he ended up being Chicago’s worst possession player on the night. You have to think he’ll benefit as much from having two full days off as anybody and should be more effective in Game 5.
• After turning in a solid if unspectacular effort in his playoff debut on Monday, rookie defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk looked every bit like a player skating in just his second NHL game since Nov. 16 in Game 4. He was caught on the ice for an exhausting 1:45 shift midway through the second period that ended with Killorn’s goal and spent the next 15 minutes glued to the bench. He ended up skating just 6:37 on the night, and much of that time he was hemmed in his own zone despite getting five of his six starts in the offensive zone. You have to think Quenneville will come back with him in Game 5, but only because he doesn’t have a better option. Whatever minutes van Riemsdyk does get will have to be heavily protected.
The numbers game
• The first four games of the Stanley Cup Final have been decided by one goal for only the third time in NHL history. The others: when the Canadiens swept the Blues in 1968, and in 1951 when the Maple Leafs and Canadiens went to overtime in all five games with Toronto winning the series.
• The Cup final is tied at 2-2 for the fifth time in the past seven years—the Blackhawks have been involved in three of them—and 10 of the last 12 have gone at least six games.
• Jonathan Toews’s 10 goals are now his career high for a single postseason. Patrick Kane (10) has also scored in double-digits, making him and Toews the third pair of Blackhawks to put up 10 or more goals during one playoff campaign. The others: Bobby Hull (11) and Jim Pappin (10) in 1971, and Dustin Byfuglien (11), Patrick Sharp (11) and Kane (10) in 2010.
• The Blackhawks crest is one of the NHL’s most well-known and beloved, but the story behind it is troubling.
• Gary Bettman discussed the Stanley Cup Final, the Arizona Coyotes situation and shoes on Hockey Night in Canada.
• Where does statistical analysis fit into scouting? Maybe here.