TAMPA, Fla. — The Blackhawks paid a heavy price for Antoine Vermette. But after a shaky start when he joined the Hawks, he is one game away from becoming a bargain.
Vermette helped move the Hawks within one game of their third Stanley Cup Final in six years, scoring the tie-breaking goal early in the third period in a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night at Amalie Arena. The victory gave the Hawks a 3-2 series lead. The Hawks will have a chance to win the Cup on home ice in Game 6 at the United Center on Monday night.
“I don’t know if I read that somewhere, were [Dave Tippett], their coach in Phoenix said in big games he comes up big,” defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “He’s definitely big for us here.”
It was Vermette’s second game-winning goal of the series and third in the last nine playoff games — a pretty nice payoff from a likely rental player who cost the Hawks their first-round draft pick in this year’s draft and defenseman prospect Klas Dahlbeck.
“I never really thought about it that way, but you could see it that way,” Vermette said when asked about the pressure he felt because of the price the Hawks paid to get him. “As a player, you always put a lot of pressure on yourself. You try to bring your best foot forward every time you step on the ice.”
Vermette’s heroics were set up by Kris Versteeg, who wisely put the puck on net when a golden opportunity on a mini-break disintegrated. Lighting goaltender Ben Bishop kicked the puck out and Vermette was there for the rebound and the tie-breaking goal two minutes into the third period.
“[Vermette] made a great play on the boards to get it up to me,” Versteeg said. “[Jason Garrison] was on the back-check, made a good play, tried to pick my stick. I just tried to put it to the area where I thought he was and fortunately enough he was there.”
Previously, Vermettescored the tie-breaking goal in the third period of the Hawks’ 2-1 victory in Game 1; he scored the game-winning goal in the second overtime of a 5-4 victory in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final — one game after he had been inexplicably scratched from the lineup.
“Right off the get-go was very [tough] for me,” Vermette said. “This is a good group, obviously a special team, you have to come here and try to help the team. This is a lot of fun right now, but there’s a lot of work still ahead.”
In fact, Vermette’s other goal in the playoffs helped make the difference in a Hawks victory. He scored a tying goal in Game 3 against Nashville in the opening round. So the Hawks are 4-0 in the postseason when Vermette has scored a goal.
“He’s gotten better every game. I thought he had a great game tonight,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Very timely goal. Big face-offs in both zones tonight — lot of wins. Positionally aware. Battled. I thought [Versteeg] had a great game as well. That line was very dangerous.
“He’s been at the right spot at the right time,” Versteeg said. “It’s not a fluke or luck. It’s been coming from hard work and some patience and right now it’s paying off for him.”
“I was hoping to have a positive affect on the game,” Vermette said. “That being said, if it comes with goals, great. If not, the details of the game matter so much. We talk [about] it, it makes a big difference. Like Patrick [Sharp] mentioned, you want to focus on the team structure, the team play, and if we do that consistently, eventually things will happen.”
The clutch production from Versteeg and Vermette was part of a timely contribution from the Hawks’ supporting cast. The third line of Vermette, Teuvo Teravainen and Versteeg and the fourth line of Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger and Andrew Desjardins made an impact all night, particularly in helping the Hawks protect the 2-1 lead.
“That’s huge, especially this deep in the playoffs,” Hjalmsarsson said, “to have a deep team, to have different guys contribute each game and not just [Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane] and those guys. They won the game for us.”