The cities of Tampa Bay and Anaheim don’t exactly jump to mind when you think of great hockey towns, but there’s no disputing the quality of the talent each franchise puts on the ice. And the Lightning and the Ducks are now each within a victory of the Stanley Cup Finals after taking Game 5 of their respective conference finals.
Anaheim and Chicago continued to play a series that leaves you breathless in watching it unfold. By rights, Game 5 should have been over after a period. The Blackhawks basically no-showed the first 20 minutes and dug themselves a 3-0 hole.
They crawled back into the game with two goals in the second period and after Anaheim scored what appeared to be an insurance goal, the Blackhawks stunned everyone with two goals in the last two minutes to force overtime.
It was reminiscent of Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals when Chicago beat Boston much the same way—and as a Bruins fan, the electro-shock therapy I’ve undergone to deal with that game was all out the window, as the rally brought back the flood of memories.
But unlike ’13, this amazing rally only forced OT and within a one minute of the extra period Matt Beleskey scored the game-winner.
The player I most feel for right now is Chicago goalie Corey Crawford. Normally, on a team this talented, he’s the reason if they lose and just along for the ride if they win. But even though the box score says Crawford gave up five goals, I didn’t think he had a real chance on four of them and none of them were really blown saves.
Conversely, Anaheim’s Frederik Andersen basically coughed up a few freebie goals. As one who basically believes the NHL playoffs are about the goaltenders, I have no problem admitting that Game 5 of this series was about anything but.
What I’m even more surprised at though, is just how thoroughly Chicago was outplayed in the first period. While the Ducks got some friendly bounces—particularly on Ryan Kesler’s tip-in goal to make it 2-0 where the puck danced on the ice with greater dexterity than Gene Kelly in his prime—those breaks were the byproduct of their complete domination of the flow of play. Chicago admirably rallied, but the hole was too deep.
This is two straight games where the more admirable team has lost the hockey game. Anaheim’s gutty rally in Game 4 and Chicago’s in Game 5 each produced overtime and each time the rallying team lost. At least the justice evened out over the two games.
IN THE EAST
The New York Rangers did what they needed to do in terms of style in Game 5, which is say that made it a game completely without style. It was a grinding, physical game in Madison Square Garden, tailor-made for the Rangers with their tough defenseman and superior goalie in Henrik Lundqvist.
But Tampa Bay showed what they’re made of. Ben Bishop bounced back from a couple poor games on his home ice and sparkled in the spotlight of MSG. The Lightning ground out a couple second-period goals and the one that made it 2-0 was a majestic power play goal, where Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov combined on two straight perfect passes to move the puck across the ice to Steven Stamkos who came in on the weak side to tap it in.
The passing was too crisp and fast for even Lundqvist to move laterally with enough speed. All Stamkos had to do was just put his stick out and let it bounce into the net. It’s the kind of play that makes you marvel at what these athletes can do on skates.
While that goal provided the artistic beauty though, it was Tampa Bay’s own toughness, in response to New York’s, which defined this game. The key stat is 24-11, the number of blocked shots the Lightning had compared to the Rangers. And the play that symbolized it the best came with about seven minutes left.
New York was desperately trying to get back in the game and their best scorer, Rick Nash, came across center ice with a full head of steam and uncorked a bullet shot. Two Lightning players, without hesitation, dropped their bodies in front of the puck and it never got near the net. Even with all their padding, that’s a shot that will leave a mark.
I won’t use a cliché and say Tampa Bay wanted it more—because that would insult New York, who certainly competed—but the Lightning wanted it awfully bad, and they were able to win playing the opponent’s style on the opponent’s rink.
Tampa Bay tries to wrap up the series tonight back home, while Anaheim goes on the road to take its first of two shots at the Finals on Wednesday. Both games start at 8 PM ET and are on NBC Sports Network.