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Verdi: Dead heat after four episodes of fleet and fun hockey

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

On a Wednesday night of surprises at the United Center, there remained a constant theme to this Stanley Cup Final: Although some of the names are changing on the fly, the Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning are in a dead heat after four episodes of fleet and fun hockey.

The Blackhawks won Game 4 by 2-1, but not until the Lightning ran out of clock while double parked in the offensive zone, buzzing Corey Crawford with six shooters all over the place. He was superlative, the Blackhawks tied the series 2-2, and you can release your index finger from the panic button at least until Saturday night.

Joel Quenneville was giving his switchboard a workout, and it felt like your summers in day camp. Everybody gets to play with everybody. For instance, on Brandon Saad’s winning backhander 6:22 into the third period, he was out there with Patrick Kane and Brad Richards. Coach Q said he did what he did in the name of balance, not subterfuge. Besides, if his line combinations were a shocker, well, where was Ben Bishop?

Indeed, the Lightning didn’t even dress the goalie who labored to victory in Game 3. They started Andrei Vasilevskiy and he was backed up by Kristers Gudlevskis. What is this, a spelling bee? Vasilevskiy, a 20-year-old Russian prodigy, finished Game 2 in Tampa. The Blackhawks did not exactly make his night miserable here. It was as though they were trying to freeze him, like he was a place kicker. When Patrick Sharp finally registered their first shot on him 8:20 into the first period, all the Blackhawks learned was that he might be inclined to surrender the occasional rebound.

Jonathan Toews pounced on one of those for his first goal of the Final, but 10th in this postseason, a career high. That occurred at 6:40 of the middle period, shortly after Vasilevskiy was twice saved by posts. The Lightning didn’t tie it in 13 seconds, but waited about five minutes before Alex Killorn had all sorts of elbow room on Crawford’s right with a delayed penalty pending on Brent Seabrook for flipping Steven Stamkos.

He notched an assist, his only point in this tournament. As the Lightning’s chief source of thunder, Stamkos can commiserate with Kane, who did get credit for a helper on Saad’s bullish maneuver. At game’s end, with the crowd registering a constantly loud sound track, like that of a locomotive speeding through a tunnel, it was Stamkos in particular pecking away at Crawford to no avail.

Crawford felt he had to atone for a mediocre Game 3, and he accomplished as much. Having selective amnesia is imperative for goalies, as is being slightly daft. There are three cameras in each net during the Final. If you had three cameras behind you at work, wouldn’t you try crazy?

Toews suggested the Blackhawks are improving “as the series goes along.” This is not headline news. They close deals the way James Bond closes deals. Wednesday night was not an optimum performance, but they did extinguish four Lightning power plays, and the four horses on defense did their usual routine.

Johnny Oduya, wounded Monday night, played almost 26 minutes; Niklas Hjalmarsson almost 25; Seabrook just short of 24. Duncan Keith checked in at 29:07, but he’s an alien. If he were a mailman, he would take a walk on his day off. Trevor van Riemsdyk and Kimmo Timonen combined for just over 12 minutes – the latter hit a post!

So the Blackhawks, who had so many of their fans worried, are in reasonably stable condition. As for predicaments, their worst one endured during this era of enlightenment – besides series losses to the Phoenix Coyotes in 2012 and Los Angeles Kings last spring – would have to be in 2013, when they lost three of the first four games to the Detroit Red Wings in the conference semifinals.

The Blackhawks won Game 5 here, but trailed 2-1 after two periods of Game 6 in Joe Louis. Crawford allowed a go-ahead goal that he still would like to have back. He also prevented the Red Wings from building a 4-1 or 5-1 bulge.

Then, at 51 seconds of the third period, Michal Handzus tied it. Bryan Bickell scored and Michael Frolik put the Blackhawks ahead, 4-2, converting a penalty shot. They needed it, because Detroit drew to within 4-3. That was the final, and the Blackhawks won Game 7 at the United Center on Seabrook’s overtime blast.

This continued narrative should inspire confidence in fans, although a contingent fretted after the Blackhawks lost to an obviously hurting goalie Monday night. Bishop – who will play again this series, according to Head Coach Jon Cooper – should be admired. Besides, those of you with long memories remember when this franchise had a real, tangible problem beyond capitalizing on an enemy injury. The name of it was: bad at hockey. Being bad at hockey doesn’t heal, and it cannot be rectified by surgery.

Many years ago, Blackhawks scouts developed a nasty habit of drafting players who became attached to the pool table in the locker room at the old Stadium. You knew it was trouble when you asked the youngsters for their idols. You expected to hear them say Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. Instead, they were infatuated by Willie Mosconi and Minnesota Fats.

Then there was a period when the Blackhawks unwittingly fielded a better golf team than hockey team. A healthy scratch in those days meant a guy could shoot 72. The roster contained several lads who did not score much on the ice, but scored well around the greens.

Moving right along, from 1997 to 2009, the Blackhawks qualified for the playoffs just once, in 2002. In 2006, Trent Yawney, a condemned man, coached the team, at least until November. Barry Rozner of the Daily Herald recently wrote a column about the lineup for his last game. We shall omit names to protect the innocent. Do yourself a favor and don’t look it up.

By then, dynamic Jeremy Roenick was long gone, having been traded in a contract dispute for Alex Zhamnov. Fans fumed, but Zhamnov’s agent asserted that his guy was a magician. Indeed, on any given game night, Zhamnov could make himself disappear. Poof, just like that.

So, enjoy what exists now. The Blackhawks are square against a talented foe, and as Toews hinted, they are again finding answers to another final exam.

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