TAMPA, Fla. – The Blackhawks are one step away, which sounds like such a small thing, doesn’t it? One step. Put a foot in front of the other and you’re there. Simple locomotion.
The Hawks are one step from winning their third Stanley Cup in six seasons, and all they have to do is win one more hockey game. If they could cure the common cold while they’re at it, that would be good too.
This crazy, wonderful, arduous series is now in the hands of the Hawks, who beat the Lightning 2-1 in Game 5 Saturday night. They lead what feels like a best-of-seven-month marathon 3-2 after finally relocating the fast-paced attack that has made them so good for so long.
One measly step.
And yet, would anyone be surprised if the Hawks dropped Game 6 Monday at the United Center in this down-is-up series? No one of sound mind. In fact, that scenario would make more sense than almost anything else in a Final that has been as tight as a piano wire.
So would the Hawks winning Game 7 back here. Am I getting ahead of myself? No, just steeling myself for two more games of hockey insanity.
The beauty of the Hawks during their Cup Era is that they can take the measure of an opponent, adjust to whatever is being asked of them as a series goes along and end up imposing their will.
That’s what happened Saturday. It was either that or the Hawks remembered how to skate. They were stride for stride with the Lightning all night, something that couldn’t be said about the first four games.
“We’re relentless,’’ said goalie Corey Crawford, who was excellent Saturday. “We never give up. We keep doing what we do.’’
Kris Versteeg has been a forgotten man for long stretches of this season. A possible byproduct of that is fresh legs at time when other players are struggling with the grind of the playoffs. That looked to be the case in the third period, when he made a rush down the ice and managed to get the puck in front of the net for Antoine Vermette to finish. The goal gave the Hawks a 2-1 lead that they would never cede.
All five games of this series have been one-goal games. That might explain why you feel like you have been reduced to raw nerve endings.
The truth, whether the Hawks wanted to hear it or not, is that the Lightning had been the better team through four games, even though the 2-2 series tie said they were equals.
Then Saturday arrived, and the Hawks found their speed and their skill and their game. They also found that life is a lot easier when the opposing goalie collides with a teammate, leaving an open net into which Patrick Sharp can deposit the puck. Lightning goalie Ben Bishop and defenseman Victor Hedman skated into each other in the first period after Bishop had come out to clear the puck. Sharp had so much time to get to the net, he could have been kicking a can down the road.
“It happens,’’ Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman said. “Unfortunately, it happened in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.’’
Earlier, the Hawks had dodged disaster when Crawford took too long to pass the puck, and he ended up giving it to the Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov. Crawford had to dive to stop the bouncing puck with his stick. Kucherov got hurt on the play.
The Hawks had all sorts of scoring opportunities in that first period, Andrew Shaw’s point-blank shot from the slot setting the tone 3:30 into the game.
“Our start is something we haven’t seen the first four games,’’ coach Joel Quenneville said.
There was an 8:22 stretch in the second without a whistle or a breath. It was great stuff by two great teams going at it.
It says something about the depth of the Hawks that the line of rookie Teuvo Teravainen, Vermette and Versteeg was the best one on the ice Saturday.
“You don’t want to underachieve,’’ captain Jonathan Toews said. “You want to get the most out of each other and find a way to come together as a group and give yourself a chance to be here. I think that’s what everyone in this room wants.’’
One more step, but don’t expect the Hawks to get caught up in giddiness that is sweeping over Chicago.
“We’ve got guys who have been there, done that,’’ Quenneville said.
That they do.