Considering their experience, as well as their ability to overcome adversity, many expected the Chicago Blackhawks to steamroll past the Tampa Bay Lightning for their third Stanley Cup championship in six years. And after Chicago’s comeback victory on the road in Game 1, it appeared to be a foregone conclusion.
The Blackhawks used a quick two-goal spurt to erase a deficit for the second straight contest, but went on to lose Game 2. They then squandered another 2-1 lead two days later at home to fall behind in the series. The Lightning turned the tables on the veteran club in those two games, and Chicago must come up with a solution fast or it will find itself facing elimination as it heads back to Tampa Bay for Game 5.
If the Blackhawks are to even the Stanley Cup Final at two wins apiece, they will need their top guns to begin firing.
Patrick Kane and captain Jonathan Toews enter Game 4 among the top six in postseason scoring with 20 and 19 points, respectively. But Toews has been limited to one assist over the first three contests while Kane has been kept off the scoresheet entirely, often making ill-advised passes and unleashing low-percentage shots.
As is often the case in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the question of health pops up when an elite player doesn’t produce. In the case of Kane, the question may be a valid one as the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner returned to Chicago’s lineup at the beginning of the postseason after missing the final seven weeks of the regular season with a broken clavicle.
Perhaps that injury has reared its ugly head, or maybe Kane has suffered a completely different one. Of course, the reason for the lack of production could be that the Lightning are just doing a fantastic job of containing Kane, who was held without a point in only four of the Blackhawks’ 17 playoff games prior to the Final.
Toews is a major reason why Chicago is playing for the Cup, as he registered five goals and an assist over the final four games of the Western Conference Final to lead his squad past the top-seeded Anaheim Ducks. Like Kane, the 27-year-old Winnipeg native has yet to tally against Tampa Bay, but he believes the Blackhawks have the talent to overcome the duo’s shortcomings and win the series.
“I think the two of us always feel that expectation, maybe that pressure to contribute offensively,” Toews told reporters. “But I think as a team, we got a lot of guys who can contribute in that way. We’re confident that it doesn’t matter who scores the goals, we’re going to find a way to win as a team.”
The veteran also believes it’s only a matter of time before he and Kane find a way to get the puck past Ben Bishop.
“As long as we’re playing smart, two-way hockey, we’re creating, bringing energy, eventually something’s got to tip,” Toews said. “I think that’s the way we’re looking at it right now.”
Its offensive issues notwithstanding, Chicago may have an even bigger problem on the blue line. After knocking off Anaheim in a seven-game series in which they played primarily with four defensemen, the Blackhawks could be without one of them in Game 4.
Johnny Oduya missed the final 7:44 of the second period in Game 3 and was limited to just over five minutes in the third due to an upper-body injury. The 33-year-old, who was averaging 25:09 of ice time prior to Monday’s contest, is questionable for Wednesday.
“I think he’ll be all right,” coach Joel Quenneville said after Tuesday’s practice. “He looked all right today. We’ll see how he is tomorrow.”
Since Michal Rozsival went down with a fractured ankle in the final game of Chicago’s sweep against the Minnesota Wild in the conference semifinals, Quenneville has relied heavily on the quartet of Oduya, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson. He has used four other defensemen sparingly this postseason and sees no reason to change that plan should Oduya be able to play in Game 4.
“The guys take care of themselves to a different level,” Quenneville said. “They prepare to the excitement and importance of the next game. They find ways where they’re ready to compete. Whatever is in front of them, they feel the more they get, the better they’ll play. They don’t mind playing big minutes.”
The minutes will be of enormous importance in Game 4. And they will be bigger than ever should Chicago own a lead in the third period.
But if the Blackhawks are unable to preserve that potential lead and even the series, there likely won’t be very many minutes remaining in their season.