An inch to the left on Marcus Kruger’s redirect of a Johnny Oduya shot in the first period, and maybe everything plays out differently. Two inches to the left on Patrick Sharp’s breakaway that found the same post. If Steven Stamkos’ desperation whack in the frantic final minutes had skittered just to the right a bit. If the angle of trajectory on Kimmo Timonen’s shot that rang off the crossbar in the third had been one degree lower.
In a series that quite literally couldn’t be closer —in 240 minutes of play, the teams have only been tied or separated by one goal, with each team scoring nine goals —the margin of error is excruciatingly thin. So, yeah, Jon Cooper pretended not to know who his starting goaltender was, trotting out Andrei Vasilevskiy in warmups after posturing that Ben Bishop would start during the morning skate. And sure, Joel Quenneville ran his normal lines at the skate and again at warmups, even though he had told his players a night earlier that the lines would be completely different.
“We expected their other goalie in the net,” Quenneville said with a smirk. “So I guess it’s 50-50.”
Everything’s 50-50 in this remarkable Stanley Cup Final. So it was only fitting that Brandon Saad got his stick on a knuckling puck in front of Vasilevskiy in the third period —“pretty lucky,” Saad said — smacking it into the Lightning net to give the Blackhawks a massive 2-1 victory in Game 4 on Wednesday night, evening the series at 2-2 and guaranteeing one last game at the United Center.
It wasn’t over until the very last second ticked off the clock, after a breathless finish that saw Stamkos squander two golden chances on the doorstep and Corey Crawford (24 saves) stand tall in the face of chaos, with Tampa Bay firing off seven shot attempts in the final 66 seconds.
Game 5 is Saturday night in Tampa. Don’t expect anything different. Two evenly matched teams, loaded with skill — the Hawks’ experience overwhelming their weariness, and countering the Lightning’s youthful exuberance.
“I know the series is tied 2-2, but we’ve had a chance to win every single game,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “You can’t ask for more than that from your team.”
That’s the thing about these Hawks, though. Even on their off nights, even when nothing’s clicking, even when their coach is changing lines shift to shift, desperately seeking some kind of spark, they can still pull out victories. They can play an awful first, a mediocre second, then a superb third. They can win by talent alone, or by sheer force of will. They do it all the time, in meaningless regular season games and in pressure-cooker Stanley Cup Final games.
The Lightning are making it awfully difficult, though.
“That was probably our worst game in a while, for whatever reason,” said Brad Richards, whose sneaky stickwork on Anton Stralman cleared the path for Saad’s power move to the net on the game-winner. “We really wanted it, but we just kept getting in each other’s way. [The Lightning] are way better than anybody imagined at checking, and trying to frustrate you. We’re learning that mentality that it might be 2-1 games the rest of the way.”
Facing a 20-year-old rookie goalie making his first playoff start, in a hostile environment, in the Stanley Cup Final, the Hawks should have been firing at will, testing Vasilevskiy early and often. Instead, they took more than eight minutes to get their first shot on goal. They only got one more the entire first period. They hit three posts. Jonathan Toews missed two tricky-but-makeable deflections.
Quenneville started with Andrew Shaw — so effective as a winger on the fourth line — centering Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane. He had Sharp with Toews and Marian Hossa. He had Brad Richards at wing. He buried Teuvo Teravainen, hardly playing him at all in the first two periods. And he mixed and matched throughout, seeking some kind of combination that would create some kind of offense.
Instead, the Hawks sputtered, unable to complete a simple pass much of the time — they had 16 giveaways in this one, after committing 14 through the first three games combined. Yet they won, anyway. It’s kind of what they do.
“No matter what the situation, whether down the series, down in a hockey game, whatever it may be, we play our best with our backs against the wall,” Patrick Kane said. “I’m not saying we played our best hockey game, but we found a way to win.”
It started with Toews finally breaking through at 6:40 of the second period, when Sharp neatly poked a puck across the goalmouth to the captain, who banked the puck in off Vasilevskiy’s right skate. It was just the Hawks’ fifth shot on goal of the game.
And once again, the lead was short-lived. At 11:47 of the second, Valtteri Filpulla made a tremendous pass from behind and nearly beyond the net to Alex Killorn. Crawford never saw the pass, and Killorn already had put the puck past him before he realized what had happen. On the play, rookie Trevor van Riemsdyk — making just his second appearance since Nov. 16 —lost a board battle, then lost Killorn.
That van Riemsdyk is playing in such a massive game is a reminder of just how depleted the Hawks are on the back end. And while Ryan Kesler’s boast that “no human” could withstand the punishment the Anaheim Ducks were doling out in the Western Conference final seemed comical at the time, the Hawks have occasionally looked like a worn-out team, at the end of a long playoff push, at the end of a long three seasons. At least, when compared with the young and excited Lightning, who have a jump in their step and have relentless stretches of sustained offense in every game.
But in the third period, the Hawks once again found that familiar switch, and flipped it, picking up the pace, and picking up a critical victory.
It’s just what they do. And in a series that’s been 50-50 from the first puck drop, it’s all they can do.
“It’s a huge win, honestly,” Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “It’s good for our morale in here, too, to get our spirits up and get a smile on our faces. This team gets pretty miserable losing games, and [there have been] a lot of pissed-off faces around here. We can have a smile on our faces tomorrow and start thinking about Game 5 again.”