TAMPA, Fla. — Niklas Hjalmarsson thinks it’s worse for the fans, for the friends, for the family back home in Sweden. He imagines them living and dying with every shot, every save, every rush in every direction. Five games, 15 periods, 300 minutes of exhilarating action, and neither team has led by more than one goal. Not for a single second.
For Hjalmarsson, it’s fun. It’s what he lives for. “I love it,” he said. But even the ever-cool Blackhawks defenseman feels that weight, that intensity when he has a brief moment to breathe, and to think.
“You know going into games that it’s going to be a battle,” Hjalmarsson said. “For three periods, every single shift, you have to give it your all, otherwise you’l be out there for a goal against. That’s just how good they are. You know what you’re playing for.”
All that angst, all that tension — it can all be over soon. The Stanley Cup will be in Chicago on Monday, and the Hawks have a chance to raise it on home ice for the first time in 77 years, thanks to their 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5 of the Final on Saturday night.
Antoine Vermette followed up a Kris Versteeg partial breakaway to score his third game-winning goal of the playoffs — and his second of the Final, and Corey Crawford made 31 saves in another stellar effort to keep Tampa at bay. The Hawks lead the series 3-2, and all three of their victories in this remarkable and riveting series have been by the same 2-1 score.
They will have a chance on Monday to win the Cup in Chicago for the first time since 1938. They had a chance at the old Stadium in 1971, but dropped Game 7 to the Montreal Canadiens.
“Never been in this spot,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “I’m sure it’ll be crazy in town for the next two days. I’m sure the buzz will be off the charts.”
The extra day off between games seemed to agree with the Hawks. After looking worn-out and trudging through Game 4, winning almost despite themselves, the Hawks looked like their old selves again in the early going of Game 5 — fast through the neutral zone, crisp with passes, aggressive on the forecheck, attacking the net. They tested the still-hurting Ben Bishop early and often, with seven shots in the first four minutes. And right after Crawford survived his own gaffe behind his own net (with Tampa Bay winger Nikita Kucherov getting injured in this process), Bishop came out too far, collided with Victor Hedman, and allowed Patrick Sharp to score his first goal in 13 games into a comically empty net for a 1-0 lead.
“I just knew there was a collision and I found myself with a heck of an opportunity,” Sharp said. “So make sure you put that one in.”
Eventually the Lightning settled down and got back to mucking up the neutral zone and tilting the ice back in the other direction. Cedric Paquette drilled Andrew Desjardins so hard along the boards the penalty-box door opened, and the Hawks (who led 11-2 in shots early) went about nine minutes putting a puck on Bishop.
The second period saw more ghastly turnovers by each team. Teuvo Teravainen fired wide on a breakaway. Valtteri Filppula nearly scored on his own net. Versteeg was robbed by Bishop after another inexplicable Tampa Bay pass to nobody in the defensive zone. Back and forth they went for 8 minutes, 22 seconds without a whistle, a wild and messy, but highly engaging duel. Finally, midway through the second, the Lightning broke through. Duncan Keith, who has been brilliant throughout the postseason but struggled in Game 5, failed to clear the puck and it led to Filppula one-timing a terrific pass from Jason Garrison past Crawford from a sharp angle for a 1-1 tie.
But Vermette —viewed as something of a trade-deadline bust just a few weeks ago —came up huge again, trailing Versteeg, who got behind Garrison and Jonathan Drouin, and cleaning up the rebound for the 2-1 lead. Versteeg, in particular, was excellent in the third period, as the Hawks’ bottom six — the Vermette line and the Marcus Kruger line — did most of the heavy lifting, salting away the victory with strong work at both ends of the ice while the Lightning continued to stymie Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa.
“That’s something that’s huge, especially this deep in the playoffs, to have a deep team, to have different guys contribute each game and not just [Toews] and [Kane] and those guys,” said Hjalmarsson, who was brilliant in his own right. “They won the game for us.”
They did, and they put the Hawks in position to win their third Stanley Cup in six seasons —not in Philadelphia this time. Not in Boston. At home, at the Madhouse on Madison, in front of a fan base that hasn’t seen such a thing in nearly all of their lifetimes.
Toews said the motto has been “let’s not get ahead of ourselves” throughout the postseason. But at this point, with the sport’s greatest prize so tantalizingly close, that’s easier said than done.
“Our home crowd, they deserve it,” Hjalmarsson said. “They’ve been cheering us on all year long. They’ve been unbelievable. And the support we feel from them in Chicago is huge for us, especially now when … you’ve played a lot of games. So you’ve got to find energy everywhere. And that’s definitely one source that you can find a lot of energy from — the crowd, at home. It’s not just in the United Center. They’ve been following us around all over the country. We know we have a lot of support throughout the whole country, so that feels great.”
Or, as Hossa more succinctly put it: “Game 6, it’s going to be unreal.”