Game 4 is Bigger than big for Blackhawks to avoid 3-1 hole

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How many ‘‘must-win’’ games have the Blackhawks had this postseason?


There have been momentum-shifters, games to defend home-ice advantage, paybacks and closeouts.

But let’s call Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday at the United Center a ‘‘super-must-win’’ game.

Indeed, if the Hawks lose this game, they will be down 3-1 in the Finals, and that’s not where any hopeful champ would want to be. It means the Hawks would have to win three consecutive games before the Lightning won one. Those are terrible odds.

Heck, in hockey, you can weird-bounce your way to a victory on almost any given night. And this unusual team from Tampa, Florida, with its hurt-or-not-hurt goalie and its speedskating ‘‘Triplets’’ line, can win even without any help from luck.

It’s painful to dwell on this, but the Hawks’ Marian Hossa was unlucky when he was tripped in Game 3 and missed a net so open it looked as though somebody had left a two-man smelt net on the ice.

And then there was last season in the Western Conference final, when — oh, brother, this is a painful thing to dredge up — the Hawks and Los Angeles Kings were tied at 4 in overtime and the puck bounced off defenseman Nick Leddy, past goalie Corey Crawford and into the net.

And that was on home ice. The United Center crowd was like a blimp that just lost its plug.

So can we again emphasize how big this game is?

Maybe it’s because it’s almost mid-June and it has been in the 80s here, but it just seems hard to take a team from the retirement center of southwest Florida seriously. Hockey and sand crabs? Hockey and manatees? Hockey and year-round shuffleboard?

But this Lightning team was built like all the other oddly located teams in Nashville, Tennessee; Charlotte, North Carolina; Dallas, etc. That is, like all the frozen-pond teams in the North.

There are 10 Canadians, four Russians, one Finn, three Swedes, two Czechs and a Latvian on the Lighning’s roster. They’re not in the Tampa area to sunbathe or launder money (although dollars might be flowing their way if the Lightning win this Cup).

In short, the Hawks must win this game. The only ‘‘super-must-win’’ game after Wednesday will be the next game. And so on until the Hawks snag their third Cup in six seasons.

This can’t happen unless the Hawks’ stars — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and the plummeting Patrick Sharp, in particular — raise their games to the desperate, now-or-never level.

In Game 3, that trio had 10 shots on goal but finished without a goal or an assist. The Lightning have figured out how to shadow them and make open shots rare. They have huge defensemen, and their skating skills are stunning.

Those ‘‘Triplets’’ — Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat — are a force to behold. Captain Steven Stamkos largely has been held in check, like the Hawks’ stars, so game-changing isn’t a given for any player, no matter how talented.

The thing now for the Hawks is to recognize that they didn’t get this far by not having a great team. The 19 shots they peppered Lightning goalie Ben Bishop with in the first period Monday showed how offensively skilled they are. It might have been demoralizing to see only one of those shots sneak past Bishop, who has some kind of (choose one) upper- or lower-body injury, intestinal-tract thing, severed leg, upset tummy, collapsed lungs or nothing at all.

After Game 3, writers praised Bishop for playing hurt. With what, nobody knows. But he was a wounded hero for stopping 36 of 38 shots.

But teammate Victor Hedman said, ‘‘He was not struggling one bit,’’ and the team is ‘‘totally comfortable with him back there.’’

Truth or lies? Who knows?

But if I know the Hawks, they’ll win Wednesday. They certainly know super-big from little.

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.


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