Stanley Cups are won and lost every year when one goalie takes at least a game or two in the Finals and invites his team to hop on his back. It might be a stretch to say Blackhawk goalie Corey Crawford single-handedly produced his team’s series-tying 2-1 win in Game 4 over the Tampa Bay Lightning. But he certainly bailed them out in the final two minute, when Chicago’s mystifying tentativeness almost caught up with them.
Tampa Bay was playing without goaltender Ben Bishop, putting 20-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy in net. I fully expected Chicago to put the kid under constant duress. Instead, the Blackhawks got only 19 shots on goal the entire net and were tied 1-1 in the third period when Brandon Saad finally slipped one through the goalie’s legs.
It was no surprise that the Lightning resorted to an extremely conservative approach, packing it in on defense, keeping the game in close quarters and protecting their untested goalie. We’ve seen Tampa Bay do this, even with Bishop in goal, with success at key moments in the playoffs. What was surprising is that Chicago either wouldn’t or couldn’t force the pace. At no point did Vasilevskiy ever to make a series of tough saves in succession.
Thus, the game was still within reach for the Lightning in the final two minutes when they pulled the goalie and unleashed. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a talented offensive team get more point-blank looks at the net and not score. They got nine shots in an 80-second span, and several of those were up close or with open net. A combination of misses and some heroic saves by Crawford preserved the win and kept this series alive.
Two things are apparent in these first four games. One is that Tampa Bay seems to be able to dictate whatever pace it wants. When they want to open up the ice and create chances for their great scorers, it happens. When they want to pack it in and protect the goalie, it happens. But the other thing, no less important, is that Chicago is able to play at either style.
Normally, the team that dictates pace wins the game, regardless of the sport. It’s for that reason that I still narrowly like the Lightning to ultimately prevail. But it’s really anybody’s series right now. Game 5 goes Saturday night in Tampa Bay (8 PM ET, NBC).