Hockey teams don’t usually engage in all-out wars of words. They lean toward subtle propaganda campaigns meant to either send a message to the opponent or, in the case of the Tampa Bay Lightning, to themselves.
Before Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday, a message flashed on the video board at Amalie Arena. It presumably did not come from Tampa Bay’s players or its coach, but it might as well have:
We’ve Been Here
Time After Time
There Is No Fear
Only Desire To Win.
The young Lighting had dropped Game 1 after dominating the Blackhawks most of the first two periods, and someone apparently had felt the need to reassure the masses. If the marketing department had airdropped pamphlets of hope over Tampa, no one would have blinked.
Two days after that loss, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper’s words at a press conference were pep rally-worthy.
“Unfortunatelywedroppedthatgame,’’ he said. “But if there’s one thing we learned,it’s that we know we belong.’’
There’s no reason to take that statement too far, to parse it for all its possible meanings and to make the leap that the Lightning have major questions about their place in the world. But it did make one pause. Not as much as Bruce Boudreau’s words did on the eve of Game 7 of the Western Conference final, when he said he wouldn’t be surprised if his Ducks fell behind 1-0 near the start of that contest. Way to set the tone, coach!
But Cooper’s words were odd coming from the coach of one of the two teams left standing in the Stanley Cup Final. They had the whiff of subservience to them. After three hard-fought series, the Lightning needed Game 1 to know they belonged on the ice with the Hawks?
Now, Cooper would surely argue that his team indeed showed no fear in bouncing back with a wild 4-3 victory Saturday night. But all of the Lightning’s public self-esteem exercises have felt a little over the top.
It’s hard to imagine the Hawks feeling the need to reassure anyone. They’ve seen everything there is to see, and they’ve done everything there is to do. They see Game 3 on the docket for Monday night at the United Center, and they know they’ve seen a lot of games just like this one. Tampa Bay has found ways to win games in the postseason, but nobody has figured out more ways to win important games than the Hawks have the past seven seasons.
Now, it’s possible that the Blackhawks are saying similar things as the Lightning are and that I’m simply hearing an entirely different message through my parochial ears. But when Jonathan Toews opens his mouth, I hear a man who is calculating how this series is going to play out. I hear a captain who always seems to be two moves ahead.
“It’s not time to get frustrated, it’s not time to give up,’’ he said in the Hawks’ locker room after Game 2. “You stay with it and eventually something clicks and when it does, it feels really good. This is the time of year where you just empty the tank, throw everything you can at them. You just continue no matter what. You don’t make excuses. You don’t throw in the towel. You keep working for that offense. It comes at a price, too.’’
The Hawks adjusted to the Lightning’s speed in Game 1. They saw what Tampa Bay did in Game 2, and they’ll adjust again. They’ll adjust until they figure out how to win this series. It’s how they won two Stanley Cups the previous five seasons.
You watch what the Hawks do more than you listen to what they say. Mostly, you watch them win.
“We gained some confidence to know that we can play a solid game and finish it this time with the lead heading into the third,’’ Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said after the Game 2 victory.
The Hawks don’t talk about confidence. It would be like talking about breathing.
In the inevitable post-Game 2 overreaction on social media, Hawks goalie Corey Crawford was the spawn of Satan for giving up a bad goal and forward Patrick Sharp was a clown in a miniature car for picking up back-to-back penalties in the third period. Fine. But it all seemed silly two games into a series that is really just beginning.
“We’ll be all right,’’ Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said.
He wasn’t trying to convince anybody. He was just speaking the truth.