CHICAGO – One team had its playoff hopes secure, while the other team still needed every possible point with only a handful of games remaining.
However, it was hard to tell which team was which based on the way the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks played Sunday night in front of 21,587 at the United Center. Despite being outshot 31-15 and at times playing with just nine healthy forwards, it was the Eastern Conference’s playoff-bound Lightning that looked more desperate in a defense-oriented 2-0 win.
It was supposed to be the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks (42-28-8) who played that way, but instead they were confounded by Tampa Bay’s defensive trap. The Lightning -- winners of five straight -- clogged the neutral zone, blocked shots, cleared rebounds and helped backup goalie Mike Smith record his first shutout of the season – and 11th of his career.
"We still have something to play for, but we have our playoff spot locked in and they don't," said Tampa Bay forward Martin St. Louis, who assisted on a first-period marker by Vincent Lecavalier that stood as the game-winner. "We knew they needed these points more than we did, but it's not like we were going to give them the two points. We competed. We frustrated them with our system. I know we got outshot, but we really managed that game pretty good."
Lecavalier's goal – a tap-in just eight seconds into a power play at 7:56 of the first – put the Lightning up 1-0 and from that point on it was Tampa Bay's defense (21 blocked shots) and goaltending that took over until Nate Thompson's empty netter sealed it with 22 seconds left in the third.
Smith was outstanding for his 12th win in 21 games. He made 31 saves in just his third game since being called up from Norfolk of the American Hockey League in late February. It was his second straight win while starting the second game of a back-to-back, after beating the Carolina Hurricanes on the road on Mar. 26 in the same scenario.
"You can't ask for better," Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said. "You've got a backup that goes in and gives you a chance to win in a back-to-back. That's two back-to-backs now that he goes in and does a great job."
Smith, who spent 11 games at Norfolk spread across two separate stints this season, said the key to his improved play is simply making the game more instinctual.
"I stopped thinking about how to play and just played," he said. "Things happen fast out there and you can't always be in the right position at the right time. It's about making saves. Lately I've just focused on making saves and being in good position. And when you're not, just try to make big saves."
He did that in the last 10 minutes of the second and most of the third – including during a pair of Chicago power plays.
It wasn't all good news for the Lightning, however. Lecavalier left the game early in the second and didn't return after a high stick by Michael Frolik cut his face near his eye. Boucher didn't have an update on his status, but said he was worried.
As for the Hawks, it was a brutal loss considering both teams chasing them for the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoff field won Sunday. Chicago (42-28-8) started the day three points ahead of the ninth-place Calgary Flames – who beat the Colorado Avalanche 2-1 – and five points ahead of the 10th-place Dallas Stars, who downed the Anaheim Ducks 4-3.
The only good news for the Hawks is they still trail the seventh-place Ducks by just one point and have four games left. Calgary has just two games left, while Dallas also has four to play – all against teams that are out of the playoff hunt.
The Hawks, meanwhile, have road games this week against the Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings – with home tilts against the St. Louis Blues and Red Wings on Sunday to finish the season. Still, all of the projections are not the main concern in the Chicago locker room.
Instead, it's about getting back on track after dropping three of the last five games and being shutout in two of the last three – both by Eastern Conference teams.
"It's not about points," said Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, who finished with a minus-1 rating and two shots in 21:00 on Sunday. "Once you get to the playoffs, anything can happen – but you've got to be prepared for it. We've got to prepare to be a team that goes farther in the playoffs than just the first round. We're not going to be satisfied with that."
Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford -- who has 31 wins as a rookie -- again played well while making his 23rd straight start.
He only had to face 15 shots because Tampa Bay was so short on forwards, but came up with some big saves to help thwart three Lightning power plays in the second – including the double minor for Frolik's high stick.
Chicago kept the pressure on in the third, but just couldn't get much going against the Bolts' neutral-zone trap – which they intensified by keeping four and five guys for much of the second and third. All things considered, it was a bitter loss to swallow for the Hawks – who would've been in pretty good shape with a win.
"They play a frustrating game," Hawks defenseman Brian Campbell said. "You kind of know that and talk about it, but it's still not the easiest to get around them. I thought we had enough chances in the game to tie it up 1-1. We've just got to find ways to put it in the net."
They'd also better find those ways before playing the final four games this week, which will ultimately decide their playoff fate.
"We want to prepare to be a better team and be a team that's going to compete far into the playoffs," Toews said. "Whether you have momentum going into the playoffs or not … we don't want to keep playing like this, that's for sure."