TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Four games deep in the Stanley Cup Final, all that’s clear is just how little separates the Chicago Blackhawks and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
These two conference champions have two victories, nine goals and 24 penalty minutes apiece, while Chicago has outshot Tampa Bay 107-104.
Neither team has led by more than one goal at any point in the Final’s first four games, which have all been decided by one goal apiece for the first time since 1968 and just the third time in NHL history.
The Lightning stayed overnight in Chicago after Wednesday’s 2-1 loss before heading home to prepare for Game 5 on Saturday night at Amalie Arena.
They traveled with the knowledge they missed early opportunities to get Chicago in serious trouble in this series — and they know the fate of other opponents who failed to put the Blackhawks away.
“I think you’re looking at two very equal teams, for starters. Both teams have elite skill, elite speed. What we lack in their Stanley Cup experience and gold medals at the Olympics, we make up for in our youthful enthusiasm and speed,” Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said Thursday after the team returned to Florida.
“For either one of us to think we’re going to go out there and control 60 minutes of the game ... I just don’t see it happening. There are moments in each of the four games that we were in control of it, and there are moments, like the second period last night, that they were in control of it,” Bowness added. “You have to give credit to both teams. We’re good hockey clubs. We’re not going to let them play their game for 60 minutes. They’re not going to let us play our game for 60 minutes. I’m not surprised.”
Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman noted the Lightning very well could have won all four games.
The Blackhawks could accurately say the same thing, but Game 4 still stings for the Lightning, and they have an extra day off to ponder it before their 25th game of a grinding postseason.
Tampa Bay held the Blackhawks to just two shots in the first period of Game 4 and didn’t let up significantly in the final two periods, dominating the puck and forcing Chicago into one of its worst performances in recent weeks. Yet the Blackhawks got goals of pure persistence from Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad, while the Lightning lamented numerous missed chances to beat Corey Crawford.
That frustration has been epitomized by Steven Stamkos, who twice came ever so close to tying Game 4 in the final 90 seconds. The Lightning captain still doesn’t have a goal in the series — matching the total of Chicago star Patrick Kane.
“When you have teams of this caliber, it’s bound to be a tight series,” Stamkos said. “We’re disappointed about the squandered chance, (but) if you’d have given us a best 2 out of 3 at home at the beginning of the year to win the Stanley Cup, I think any team in their right mind would take that opportunity.”
The series is so even because these teams’ similarities have largely canceled each other out, from the flying forwards up front to the uncertain goalie situations in back.
“ It’s a game of bounces. You just try to work hard and try to get those bounces and keep the momentum,” Saad said. “But luck’s definitely a part of it. It’s a tough trophy to win and a tough series to be a part of.”
The Lightning still have the impressive team speed that seemed to be a key factor before this series began, but Tampa Bay has recommitted to the improved defensive game that allowed it to get out of the Eastern Conference bracket in 20 grueling games. Neither of these speedy teams is flying down the ice, instead focusing on responsible hockey.
“I think we got caught up thinking it would be run-and-gun,” Blackhawks forward Brad Richards said. “And if we do that, we just feed them. We’ve got to be more patient than them.”
Goaltending also hasn’t been a deciding factor in this series, even with ample reason to think it might be.
The Lightning don’t know yet whether Andrei Vasilevskiy will get another start in net after the 20-year-old Russian rookie played Game 4 in place of Ben Bishop, who has an undisclosed injury. Vasilevskiy won Game 2 in relief, and he played well Wednesday in his first playoff start, giving Tampa Bay little reason to worry about the potentially precarious position.
Chicago also got a strong Game 4 from Crawford, the veteran that many Blackhawks fans love to hate until he comes up big in another postseason series. Crawford was benched in favor of Scott Darling in the first round, but has bounced back to win 11 playoff games while chasing his second Stanley Cup ring.
Crawford covered for several lapses by his teammates, who have only held the lead for roughly 10 percent of clock time in this series — nearly all of it in Game 4 despite their relatively mediocre performance.
“That was probably our worst game in a while, for whatever reason,” Richards said. “We really wanted it, but we just kept getting in each other’s way. These guys are way better than anybody imagined at checking and trying to frustrate you, so we’re learning that mentality that it might be 2-1 games the rest of the way.”
Although fatigue hardly seems relevant in a series with such high stakes, the Lightning are near the tail end of an historic playoff grind.
In Game 6 back in Chicago on Monday, Tampa Bay will play its 26th postseason game to tie the NHL record held by the 2014 Los Angeles Kings and two other teams. If the series goes seven games — and you’d have trouble finding many people who think it won’t — the Lightning will set a record with 27 playoff games in one postseason.
And the Lightning won’t be surprised if the final three are all as close as the first four.
“Two good teams playing some good hockey and creating chances,” Stralman said. “I have nothing that I didn’t really like about our game. I’m sure they feel the same way.”