TAMPA – History tells us that only two teams in NHL history have lost the first two games of the Stanley Cup final on home ice and bounced back to win the Cup. They would be your 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and 1966 Montreal Canadiens.
Reality tells us that if the Blackhawks win Game 2 of the final Saturday night, this series is over. (Google, for a short time Thursday was telling us that the Blackhawks had already won the Cup. On its Blackhawks page it had listed 2015 as one of the years the Blackhawks have won a championship.)
Then again, the Tampa Bay Lightning has been defying logic for most of these playoffs. This is its fourth series this spring and the third time it has lost the first game. No team in the NHL had more wins at home than the 32 the Lightning had in the regular season, yet it’s just 5-6 on home ice in the playoffs this spring. No playoff team in the league had fewer than the Lightning’s 18 road wins, yet it’s 7-3 away from Amalie Arena in the post-season.
So when the Lightning takes to the ice for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final Saturday night, it will find itself in a familiar position. It will also find itself in a position in which it has thrived. “Yeah, I don’t think we planned on losing the first game three out of the four times,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “Definitely not something that we’ve had any issues with. This will be a different test for our group. I know that was the first game for a lot of us in the final, but I don’t think that’s an excuse for our group anymore. We got that out of the way.”
It was a little interesting that the Lightning, at least for public consumption, were not looking at Game 2 as a must-win for them, while Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was espousing precisely the opposite attitude. “No chance of being overconfident,” Quenneville said. “We have to approach Game 2 like it’s a must-win game.”
Remind us again which team is the upstart and which one is the two-time Stanley Cup champion? Off the ice, it’s hard to tell which is which. The Lightning, to its credit, has made it this far by riding a wave of self-confidence and it’s not about to change course at this stage of the playoffs. “We just played Mike Babcock and the storied Detroit Red Wings,” said Lightning coach John Cooper. “We just played the Montreal Canadiens. Enough said. We just played the New York Rangers and beat them in their building. We respect everybody, but there’s no fear in the room.”
That attitude, however, did not manifest itself on the ice in Game 1. It did for two periods, but the Lightning then seemed to give the Blackhawks a little too much respect. It went into a defensive shell, allowing the Blackhawks to have far too many uncontested zone entries and giving them far too much time with the puck on their sticks. The result was not a complete surprise. Or as Cooper so eloquently put it: “We found out if we’re going to play passive in the third period against Chicago, it may not work out too well for us.”
A couple of things have to happen for the Lightning between now and Game 2. First, it has to maintain its uncanny level of confidence in its abilities. Second, the vaunted Triplet Line of Tyler Johnson between Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov has to get back to producing the way it did earlier in the playoffs. The Lightning does not have enough depth at forward for any of their top-six forwards to go cold. If it comes down to that, the Blackhawks will win the battle of depth at forward.
“I don’t know if the questions got asked that (Jonathan) Toews and (Patrick) Kane didn’t score, so is there concern about them,” Cooper asked. “There’s no concern about the triplet. I think it’s a massive compliment when they get asked that question because it means they’ve scored so often and done so many good things. The fact they don’t do it once, it’s alarming. To me that’s the ultimate compliment. So I have no worries.”