Stanley Cup Final Game 6 in Chicago poses an exceptionally tough test for the on-the-brink Tampa Bay Lightning.

By Allan Muir
June 15, 2015

A must-win game at the Madhouse on Madison (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA) might intimidate some teams. It won’t faze the Tampa Bay Lightning.

This is a club that thumped the Red Wings at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena in Game 6 of their opening round series to stave off elimination, and then went into Madison Square Garden and knocked off the Rangers in Games 5 and 7 of their second round series. 

There’s no questioning the courage of the Lightning. But you have to wonder if they have enough left in the tank for one more road win.

The squad that won those games in Detroit and New York? That was a different team. A healthy team. Or, at least, healthier than this one.

Everyone is banged up at this time of year. The Bolts, though, are being held together with Bondo and baling wire.

• Blackhawks coach: Kane wearing Hedman out

The latest to land on the list of walking wounded—that we know of, anyway—is winger Nikita Kucherov, who paid the price for driving the net just six minutes into Game 5. His collision with the post drove him straight to the dressing room with an upper-body injury that sidelined him for the rest of the contest.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper reported on Sunday that Kucherov “is in considerably better shape today than he was last night,” and the winger is now “probable” for Game 6 after participating in the team’s morning skate on Monday. But even if he can go, there’s no telling how effective he’ll be. Kucherov, a member of the Triplets line, ranks second in Stanley Cup playoff scoring with 10 goals and 22 points. If he can’t go it’ll be a devastating blow to an offense that has struggled to score in the final.

It’s also the latest indication that this war of attrition is coming to a close.

Ben Bishop’s health has been the lead story since the goaltender suffered an apparent lower-body injury in Game 2. After sitting out Game 4, his return to action in Game 5 was physically adequate but his concentration was off, as evidenced by the brain cramp that led to Patrick Sharp’s opening goal. An uncharacteristic mistake like that is a sure sign that a player is trying to overcompensate for another issue.

There’s no telling what Bishop will bring to the rink tonight—a disturbing thought about a starting goaltender for a team that is facing elimination.

Kucherov’s linemate Tyler Johnson is a shell of the player he was earlier in the playoffs when he set a blistering pace in the scoring race. Johnson, who racked up three multi-goal games against Detroit, has just one goal in his past nine outings.

Johnson, a center, hasn’t taken a draw since Game 1. More troubling: He’s been held to a single shot in four of the five Cup final games and has been limited to one or fewer in seven of his past nine.

Depth propels Blackhawks to Game 5 win over Bolts, one away from Cup

And then there’s Steven Stamkos. Although he isn’t visibly laboring the way he was earlier in the playoffs, there’s clearly something off in his game. It’s not just that the NHL’s second-leading goal scorer during the regular season hasn’t found the back of the net in seven games. It’s that he’s consistently passing up opportunities to end the drought, deferring to teammates even when he’s situated to take the shot himself. That’s the sign of a player who’s lost faith in his ability to execute.

There’s no doubt that Stamkos is dodging. In a pivotal contest where one goal would have changed the tide, it took him 43 minutes to land his first shot on net in Game 5. Later, with the Lightning scrambling for the equalizer, he was planted on the bench for a stretch of 2:26 before he finally hit the ice just ahead of Bishop being pulled. That’s either an inexcusable coaching blunder by Cooper or a clear indication that Stamkos just didn’t have it.

Coming into this series it was thought that Chicago’s experience on the biggest stage would give it the edge over a young Tampa Bay squad. Instead, it could come down to having the good fortune to avoid the injuries that have befallen the Lightning.

These Bolts are gutsy bunch. They’ve yet to lose three games in a row all season, and in a series that’s been this close through five games it would be foolish to write them off now. But given all they’re dealing with, it’s hard to see them extending the final with a win tonight.

The numbers game

• The Blackhawks are trying to become the first team since the Red Wings in 1997, '98 and 2002 to win the Stanley Cup three times in a six-year span.

• Chicago is 15-4 in its last 19 postseason games in which the Hawks could eliminate an opponent. They're now 42-14 in Games 4-7 since the start of the 2009 playoffs and 17-1 in those games when the particular series had been tied a two wins apiece.

• Every game of this series has been decided by one goal, and the Blackhawks and Lightning have been tied or separated by one score for the entire series (300:00), making this the first Stanley Cup Final in which neither team has had a multi-goal lead at any point during the first five games.

Hot links

• Keep a good thought for Hall of Famer Stan Mikita, whose declining mental health has cost him his memories of his days with the Blackhawks. Such a sad story, movingly written by Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune.

• Got $25,000 lying around? If so, a ticket to tonight's Stanley Cup Final Game 6 could be yours.

• Could the Red Wings take advantage of some organizational depth to make a splash on the trade market this summer?

• The Montreal Canadiens need some cap space and might be willing to move one of these veterans to get it.

• Wayne Gretzky, Brendan Shanahan and other hockey greats gathered in Toronto to promote this important cause.

• The top goalie prospects in the world have this in common.

• Even the Stanley Cup has to deal with this hassle while traveling.

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