Smallest margins put Blackhawks on brink of Cup in Game 6

Jun 14, 2015, 12:18 AM
Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) hits the goal post as he collides with Chicago ...
Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) hits the goal post as he collides with Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (50) during the first period of Game 5 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Final, Saturday, June 13, 2015, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop and his Chicago counterpart, Corey Crawford, both made atrocious mistakes less than a minute apart in Game 5 of this impossibly close Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night.

Bishop’s blunder ended up in his net when he collided with defenseman Victor Hedman and sent the puck to Patrick Sharp, who scored the Blackhawks’ first goal in a 2-1 victory.

Crawford gave the puck away to Nikita Kucherov moments earlier, but his blunder didn’t cost him — and Kucherov even got injured on the play.

The differences between the Blackhawks and the Lightning are so minuscule in this historically close Final that one mistake, one false stride, one flicker of fate has decided things. Chicago took advantage of one fewer mistake and took a 3-2 series lead on a 90-degree night in Tampa.

The Blackhawks won more than a game: If they get one more stroke of fate on their side, they’ll get to raise the Stanley Cup on their home ice Monday night.

“I think everyone is pretty excited about it,” Crawford said. “But we can’t get ahead of ourselves. There’s a lot of work to do here, and it’s going to be an even harder battle.”

Here are some things to contemplate while the series shifts to the United Center:

HAWKS AT HOME: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and the incumbent core of the Blackhawks’ last two championship teams raised the Stanley Cup on road ice in 2010 and again in 2013. They’ve got the chance to do it at home this time in front of the famously boisterous Chicago fans. A home clincher is particularly wonderful when that silvery trophy is involved, but only the Los Angeles Kings have experienced it since 2007.

ONE-GOAL GAMES: The first five games in the Final have been decided by one goal, the first time that’s happened in the NHL’s final series since 1951, when Montreal and Toronto did it. Neither team has led by more than one goal at any point in the series’ 300 minutes. The tension of those stakes has translated into heavy playing time for the Blackhawks’ top defensemen. Tampa Bay has spread out its minutes more equitably, but Victor Hedman still played 23:38 in Game 5. Keith has been tireless for most of the past two rounds, but he appears to be slowing ever so slightly.

CONFIDENT LIGHTNING: Much has been made of Tampa Bay’s inexperience on hockey’s biggest platform, but coach Jon Cooper and his players are confident they can force a seventh game, which would be their third of these playoffs. In addition to being 8-4 on the road, compared to 6-7 at home, the Lightning wiped out a 3-2 deficit to eliminate Detroit in the first round and also won Game 7 at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals.

“I’ve probably overused this line during the playoffs, but I guess we’ve gone from an inexperienced playoff team to an experienced playoff team, and we’ve been in this position before just a month and a half ago,” Cooper said.

Four of the past seven times the Stanley Cup has been tied 2-2, the team losing Game 5 has rebounded to win the championship, including the 2004 Lightning.

STARS STILL STRUGGLING: Kane still doesn’t have a goal in the Stanley Cup Final. Toews still has just one goal. Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos has no goals in seven games. Playoff scoring leader Tyler Johnson has one goal in nine games. There’s still time for the best offensive players on either team to seize a game for themselves, but that time is running short.

KUCHEROV’S STATUS: If Kucherov, part of the high-scoring “Triplets” line that also features Johnson and Ondrej Palat, can’t play in Game 6, someone will need to step up to fill the void. Rookie Jonathan Drouin filled in for long stretches Saturday night, and Cooper even tried pairing Stamkos with Johnson and Palat for a while.

Kucherov has 10 goals and 22 points in 25 playoff games.

“It’s always tough. He’s a big part of our team and a big part of that one line we have there,” defensman Anton Stralman said. “But, it shouldn’t hurt us too much. … We have a deep team. We have guys that can step in and make plays.”

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Smallest margins put Blackhawks on brink of Cup in Game 6