First things first. High marks to the Blackhawks, who, in my opinion, played their best game of the series so far. Their puck management was crisp. They went north-south with the puck, consistently getting it in deep to the Lightning d-zone. They defended well without the puck, which prevented the Lightning from getting extended offensive zone shifts. Goaltender Corey Crawford played well, as he did in Game Four, but the ‘Hawks did a terrific job of clearing Crawford’s rebounds. As they have done throughout the series, Chicago was dominant on faceoffs.
Having written that, the ‘Hawks got some breaks in this game. They scored two goals. One was a gift. The other involved two good bounces. Those breaks, coupled with their sound overall play, helped them take a 3-2 lead in the series.
For the Lightning, this wasn’t their best game in the series. But after an extremely shaky start, they righted the ship for most of the rest of the contest. The ‘Hawks began the game winning eight consecutive faceoffs and owning 11 of the game’s first 13 shots. The first goal occurred when Ben Bishop came out to play the puck and collided with Victor Hedman. The puck bounced to Patrick Sharp, who put it into an open net at 6:11 of the first. That play, incidentally, came after Crawford lost the puck to Nikita Kucherov, but Kucherov couldn’t settle it down before Crawford disrupted the play. Kucherov ended up falling into the post and had to leave the game. As was the case in Game Four, that sequence was another example of puck luck benefitting the Blackhawks and not the Lightning.
After the Sharp goal, the Lightning pushed back pretty well for the rest of the period and had most of the puck possession. The ‘Hawks protected their lead well, however, and carried the advantage into the locker room after one period.
The second period was the Lightning’s best in the game. They killed off an early penalty to Braydon Coburn and eventually tied the score. At the left point, Jason Garrison threaded a cross-ice pass to Valtteri Filppula, who was standing at the bottom of the right circle. Duncan Keith got a piece of the pass, but Filppula was still able to settle the puck down and shoot it past Crawford at 10:53. The Lightning carried much of the final nine minutes of the second, but couldn’t break the tie.
Early in the third, the ‘Hawks did break that tie. After pressuring in the offensive zone, the Lightning lost the puck as it bounced out to center ice. It hopped over Garrison’s stick to Kris Versteeg, who countered down the right win on a partial breakaway. Both Garrison and Jonathan Drouin converged on Versteeg, who had his stick lifted before he could shoot. But he still forced the puck in on Bishop – the rebound ricocheted right to Antoine Vermette, who scored what would be his second game-winner in the series.
The Lightning tried to press in the final 18 minutes – and they did finish with 15 third period shots. But Crawford was very solid – he made several saves on tips and screen shots. And his teammates managed the puck well by clearing rebounds and working pucks 200 feet down the ice. Chicago played a perfect road game to protect a one-goal lead in the third. The ‘Hawks are now one win from their third Stanley Cup in the last six years.
Similar to the Detroit series in Round One, the Lightning must win Game Six on the road to extend their season. As I wrote heading into that game, it would behoove the Lightning to get the lead. That’s also the case in this scenario. The Lightning haven’t had the lead since Cedric Paquette’s winning goal in Game Three. Getting Kucherov back would also help, but we don’t know his status. On a positive note, Bishop, other than his mix-up with Hedman on the first goal, looked terrific. He showed no ill effects from the issue that kept him out of Game Four. The Bolts will need a similar performance from Bishop in Game Six. And the Lightning must find a way to get more pucks past Crawford. Getting to these rebounds will be key. And perhaps the hockey gods are ready to reward the Lightning with a bounce, because they haven’t gotten any in the last two games.
The Lightning have shown us they are capable of rallying in this situation. And remember that they were the only team in the NHL not to lose three in a row all season.
Lightning Radio Big Moment of the Game (as selected by Phil Esposito):
Vermette’s winning goal.
Lightning Radio Three Stars of the Game (as selected by Phil Esposito):
1.Corey Crawford – Blackhawks. 31 saves.
2.Niklas Hjalmarsson – Blackhawks. Seven blocks.
3.Victor Hedman – Lightning. 23:38 TOI.