CHICAGO – Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final was the 106th game of this season for the Tampa Bay Lightning and the 103rd for the Chicago Blackhawks. And more than any other time this season, both teams looked absolutely spent.
Wonder why the games get more tedious as the playoffs go on? Well, you shouldn’t, because it becomes a physical and mental battle the longer the playoffs go. Wonder why lesser lights such as Cedric Paquette suddenly leap into the limelight? Might have something to do with the fact that they’re much fresher than the stars who have to play hard minutes every night in the regular season and playoffs. Ever wonder why stars are able to get shut down so effectively at this time of year? Because when you get to this stage of fatigue, it’s far easier to destroy a masterpiece than create one.
From this battle of attrition, we have a Stanley Cup final that is tied 2-2. And it might just be decided by the medical staffs. Which one can keep its players together better might be the one that wins this thing. For the Lightning, it’s goaltending. It may see its hopes of a Stanley Cup scuttled in successive years because its No. 1 goalie went down. And for the Blackhawks, if they can somehow make it through the playoffs with four defensemen without one of them expiring, it will be a miracle.
In Game 4, the Blackhawks managed to come out with a victory, but it was about as ugly one as you’re ever going to see. The Blackhawks have become remarkably adept at playing just well enough to win games in the playoffs and Game 4 was a perfect example. They didn’t play a perfect game, far from it, but they didn’t need one. All they needed was another enormous goal from Brandon Saad and a bounce-back game from much-maligned goaltender Corey Crawford to keep their hopes alive.
Saad’s goal was his second of the Stanley Cup final, tying him for the goals lead in the final with Teuvo Teravainen, Alex Killorn and Paquette. Jonathan Toews, meanwhile, scored his first goal of the series. Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp have yet to find the back of the net for the Blackhawks, while Steven Stamkos, despite a couple of glorious opportunities at the end of the game, has no goals to show for the Stanley Cup final.
“It’s been a long season for both teams,” Toews said. “Obviously, everyone is sucking it up and finding ways to perform.”
So now the Stanley Cup final comes down to a best-of-three with the Lightning having home-ice advantage, for all that’s worth in these playoffs. With two days off between Games 4 and 5, you’d think the players on both teams would be welcoming the rest, but there’s a cyborg by the name of Duncan Keith who logged more than 29 minutes in Game 4 who would just as soon get started again as soon as possible.
“I think at this time of year, guys are kind of like, ‘Let’s just get on and play these games,’ ” Keith said. “It’s what we’ve waited for all year, our whole life, to be in the Stanley Cup final. We just take it as it comes and whatever the schedule is, we’ll just use it to the best of our advantage.”
Even though Saad provided the margin of victory for the Blackhawks and continues to raise his worth as a restricted free agent, they don’t get out of this game without the steady play of Keith and a redemption game from Crawford, who stopped 24 shots and stood tall while his team was badly outplayed early and late in the game.
“I thought he was outstanding tonight,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said of Crawford. “Call it a goalie win. Loved how he battled. He’s a battler. Great illustration how he stayed with it, how they swarmed us at the end. His movement, he was following the puck. He was big. Nice response.”
At the other end of the night, 20-year-old rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy was pressed into service when Ben Bishop couldn’t play. Even though he allowed two goals on just 19 shots, goaltending was certainly not the reason the Lightning lost the game. The fact it lost almost twice as many faceoffs as it won was a far greater factor. In any event, the absence of Bishop puts an interesting wrinkle on this series, but Lightning coach Jon Cooper expects to see his goalie back in within the next two games.
“Bish is going to play again in this series, there’s no question,” Cooper said. “I just don’t know what game.”
GAME 4 THREE STARS
1. Duncan Keith (Chicago): Played almost half the game, blocked five shots and broke up numerous plays in the Hawks zone.
2. Brandon Saad (Chicago): Scored the game winner on a power move to the net.
3. Corey Crawford (Chicago): Nice rebound for Crawford after two games in which he struggled.