Five things to watch as Blackhawks, Lightning battle in Game 4

The Blackhawks are in desperate need of a Game 4 victory, but the Lightning have been able to neutralize Chicago’s top scorers and go point-for-point when it comes to depth scoring. Should Tampa Bay win, it would give them a 3-1 series lead and put them in complete control of the Stanley Cup final. Here are five things to watch for in Game 4.

By now, you’ve likely heard the odds that a team winning Game 3 in a 1-1 Stanley Cup final series goes on to win the Cup. And if you haven’t, they don’t look good for the Blackhawks, as the team losing Game 3 has only come back to win the series five times in 26 tries.

Here’s the thing, though: one of those five teams was the Chicago Blackhawks just two years ago against the Boston Bruins. What’s different, however, is that series against Boston didn’t have Chicago scrambling for the split on home ice. Tonight, in Game 4, that’s exactly what the Blackhawks will have to do: pick up a victory to make this series 2-2 going back to Tampa Bay. If not, it could be lights out much sooner than most expected.

As coaches will say, however, a series such as this has to be taken one game at a time. Tonight, for both the Lightning and Blackhawks, that will be exactly the case. Winning Game 4 would put Tampa Bay in complete control of their fate, while a Chicago victory would make this series as tight as the play on ice has been since the opening puck drop of Game 1.

Heading into Game 4, there’s a lot to focus on, but here are the five big things to keep an eye on:

5) Chicago’s defense depth to be tested

There’s news aplenty about the Blackhawks defense corps heading into Game 4. First, Johnny Oduya, who was injured in Game 3 of the series and barely played following a trip by Nikita Kucherov, will be in the lineup. Kyle Cumiskey, who was the closest defender to Cedric Paquette on the game-winning goal, likely will not be. In Cumiskey’s place, Kimmo Timonen will see his first action of this series and first Stanley Cup final game since losing Game 6 of the 2010 final against Chicago. As for Trevor van Riemsdyk, who made his playoff debut in Game 3, he’ll be in the lineup and likely skating alongside Oduya.

As far as ideal situations for the Blackhawks defense, this isn’t it. The injury to defenseman Michal Rozsival hurt Chicago when it happened, but few could have expected them to also be playing in the Stanley Cup final with an injured Oduya and a Timonen whose effectiveness has been questionable.

In Game 3, it was the Lightning’s Victor Hedman who made the difference, delivering an incredible slap pass to Ryan Callahan for the game’s first goal and breaking wide on Brent Seabrook to set up Paquette for the game-winner. Tampa Bay’s edge on the blueline was evident in Game 3. If that edge carries over into Game 4, it doesn’t look promising for Chicago.

4) Ben Bishop’s health, Corey Crawford’s play

Bishop’s health has been a talking point since Game 2 when he left the contest late and Andrei Vasilevskiy entered the game in relief. The focus on Bishop has been incredible, with every move of his being analyzed as someone, anyone, tries to figure out what is ailing the Lightning starter. No one on Tampa Bay’s side of things is talking and, while Chicago has made it very apparent they know something is bothering the netminder, they haven’t been able to capitalize on any chances to exploit Bishop’s perceived injury.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the ice, Crawford has become a story for the Blackhawks for all the wrong reasons. In Game 2, he allowed at least one goal – the Tyler Johnson tally – that shouldn’t have been able to get by him. In Game 3, some have questioned whether or not Ryan Callahan’s goal was a supreme shot or a misplay by the netminder. The same skeptics were concerned with Ondrej Palat’s Game 3 marker, a goalmouth scramble that squeaked past Crawford 13 seconds after the Blackhawks had taken the lead in Game 3.

Chicago is winning the possession battle, having nearly 53 percent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5, but it’s not going to matter much if they’re not getting the goaltending from Crawford.

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3) Tampa Bay’s secondary scoring

One of the seemingly clear cut advantages the Blackhawks had coming into the Stanley Cup final was their depth of scoring, something the Lightning had struggled with all post-season. Turns out the bottom-six scorers were just waiting for the final to get started.

In Game 3, Callahan and Paquette had goals, and over the course of the series Tampa Bay has gotten points from Alex Killorn, Jason Garrison, J.T. Brown and Braydon Coburn. It’s not as if Chicago’s depth players aren’t finding the score sheet, but rather that the Lightning are neutralizing the Blackhawks’ offense from the bottom of the lineup with scoring of their own. That turns the tide in favor of Tampa Bay in a big way.

Callahan has been the biggest surprise for the Lightning. After coming into the series with four points in 19 games, Callahan has exploded for one goal and three assists through the final’s first three games. He leads all Tampa Bay forwards in points this series.

2) Patrick Kane pointless through three games

It’s never easy to keep Kane off the score sheet, but the Lightning have done exactly that. Matter of fact, not only is Kane pointless in the Stanley Cup final, he didn’t even register a shot on goal in Game 2, which is the only time that has happened this post-season and just the third time all campaign. That Tampa Bay has been able to shut down one of Chicago’s – and the league’s – most feared offensive weapons so well over the first three games of the series could spell trouble for the Blackhawks.

What’s concerning, too, is that even if Kane gets going now, could it be too little, too late? The Blackhawks could have used Kane breaking out in Game 2 when the score was tied or in Game 3 in the late stages before Paquette broke the tie to give the Lightning the victory. Yet, in the big moments, Kane has been largely ineffective.

If Kane gets hot and goes on a tear, putting up consecutive multi-point games, there’s a chance the Blackhawks work their way into a position to come back in this series and win the Stanley Cup. Without him finding time and space to score, however, the Blackhawks offense is going to have to rely on players like Patrick Sharp and Teuvo Teravainen, which, while not the worst situation to be in, doesn’t hold a candle to having Kane firing on all cylinders.

1) Steven Stamkos creating chances for Lightning

If it feels as though it’s only a matter of time before Stamkos makes his mark on the Stanley Cup final, that’s because it is. In Game 1, were it not for a nice pad save by Crawford, Stamkos could have put the Blackhawks away. He had another pair of shots in Game 2, but neither found the net. Chicago let Stamkos get loose twice in Game 3 and almost got burned, once on a shot that hit the crossbar and another when Stamkos nearly batted a puck out of mid-air and past Crawford. He’s getting closer and closer to scoring and eventually he’ll get on the board.

In the second period of Game 3, the Blackhawks took two consecutive penalties, which led to a lengthy 5-on-3 for the Lightning, and it was then that Stamkos looked like he was going to make Chicago pay. He had a few good looks at the net, but either deferred or had his shooting lane closed off. If the Blackhawks continue to give the Lighting the man advantage, Stamkos will eventually get set up for his booming shot.

The best-case scenario for the Lightning is that Stamkos finds his scoring touch in Game 4. The worst-case scenario for the Blackhawks is… that Stamkos finds his scoring touch in Game 4. Eventually, however, it’s going to happen, and if Kane or Jonathan Toews aren’t ready to counteract Stamkos’ skill, the Cup could be Florida bound.