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Series even at one strange victory each

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

TAMPA – In a close encounter of a third period kind, the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Blackhawks, 4-3, here Saturday night on a power-play goal by Jason Garrison with 11:11 left in regulation. Warming up weirdly now, this Stanley Cup Final is all even at one strange victory each.

With Patrick Sharp serving a second consecutive penalty, Garrison’s drive deflected off Andrew Desjardins’ stick and escaped Corey Crawford. At the other end, opposing goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was just getting his skates wet, having relieved Ben Bishop shortly after he yielded a tying blast from Brent Seabrook. His 7th goal this postseason is a franchise record for a defenseman.

Bishop argued that he had been interfered with by Marian Hossa, then soon departed mysteriously, only to return before again vanishing to the locker room. Vasilevskiy wound up logging 9 minutes, 13 seconds. He faced five shots, stopping all. And to think the Blackhawks wasted all those won faceoffs.

Jon Cooper, the Lightning coach, said afterward he would not field questions about goalkeepers. Well, there is no record of Bishop grazing with us writers at the pregame buffet, where trough overindulgence is something of a requirement. However, Florida Panthers’ goalie Roberto Luongo, who experienced plumbing problems while employed by the Vancouver Canucks, did tweet out a picture of a commode.

If Bishop was not battling agita, or merely thinking golf and seeking the nearest point of relief, might he be hurt? Upper body? Lower body? In theory, he could have had one of each, because he abandoned the net twice. Excuse our ignorance, for we were indoors. Was there a full moon on Saturday night?

Better late than never, the tournament developed an up-tempo pace designed to entertain. If the Blackhawks were still feeling Anaheim legs on Wednesday night, two days off before Game 2 were therapeutic. Meanwhile, the Lighting began Saturday night with the vigor they exhibited in Game 1 but wisely opted not to treat a 1-0 lead as commanding. This ain’t soccer.

Thus, what ensued was a speed drill that most observers anticipated. Also, the Lightning’s one-goal advantage had little staying power. They did have their way early in Chicago territory, seemingly double parked with nobody handing out tickets, or checks. Cedric Paquette capitalized on the commotion when the Blackhawks failed to clear and Crawford didn’t have much of a chance.

But early in the second, the Blackhawks tied it. Marcus Kruger and Andrew Shaw were buzzing Bishop as Desjardins shot. Shaw slipped between the goalie and Garrison to poke the puck in. Just over two minutes later, on a give-and-go with Hossa, Teuvo Teravainen feasted on a power play. He might have to insure those hands. Teuvo could pick locks for a living, but it will mean a pay cut.

Nikita Kucherov’s redirect reworked the score to 2-2 almost instantly, but the goal that really vexed Crawford was Tyler Johnson’s 13th of the postseason – a sneak attack from a grossly sharp angle. Crawford said he should have smothered the puck, but it seeped through all that gear and at least 90 percent of the 19,204 in Amalie Arena waved those blue light specials given out as souvenirs.

Despite the relatively harmless verbal harpoons exchanged between rival fan bases about tickets and wardrobes, fans in this series share a common bond so rare to professional sports. Both team owners are beloved! This is not supposed to happen. Owners everywhere have been bent, folded and mutilated in public discourse for decades, long before talk radio took over.

Rocky Wirtz is a hero in Chicago. You already know that. But there exists a similar entrepreneur here: Jeff Vinik. With his mind and his money, Vinik has elevated the Lightning to elite status. Scotty Bowman, the Blackhawks’ senior advisor/hockey operations, has a residence nearby.

“Terrific,” says Bowman, referring to the entirety of Vinik’s reign. Bowman, who has 13 Stanley Cup rings, does not dispense superlatives to amuse himself. But they come from all precincts, including National Hockey League headquarters, where Commissioner Gary Bettman brands Vinik as a “model owner” of a “model franchise.”

Vinik, 56, went to Duke and Harvard and made his fortune as an investment maven in Boston. He bought the Lightning for $110 million in 2011 and has poured $40 million into the building. A video board that extends from blue line to blue line features an in-house meteorologist who, on a Saturday night in June, informed all that the weather here is still more pleasant than Chicago’s. Did we need that? He must really be a stitch in January. Amalie also contains a giant pipe organ that bears some resemblance to the one at old Chicago Stadium. But we’re guessing that Krystof Srebrakowski, the maestro here, can’t emulate what legendary Al Melgard got away with. Every so often, just to let officials know he was watching, Melgard would belt out “Three Blind Mice.” That was in an era before two referees and political correctness.

But behind the scenes and beyond all this noise, the low-key Vinik lets his hockey people run the hockey team, a la Rocky. Vinik has become part of the community, buying and developing land around Amalie. At every home game, the Lightning awards $50,000 to a hometown hero. In the Final, the contribution is $100,000. For local residents who remember all the financial crises in the team’s past, Vinik has introduced first class to a Lightning organization that used to fly coach.

“He is unbelievable,” said Phil Esposito, who served as general manager with the original owners a few groups ago. Esposito was Saturday night’s hero, and donated the 100K to the Wounded Warriors and local hockey programs. There is a statue of Phil outside the arena. Meanwhile, brother Tony, the Blackhawks’ Hall of Fame ambassador who also was part of the front office when the Lightning debuted in 1992, attends many home games.

“We used to go to dinner every so often at this nice Italian place, Bella’s,” rued Phil. “But Tony doesn’t go out much anymore. He’s too old.”

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