A Close Series, But …: As it was documented throughout the series, the Final between the Lightning and Blackhawks was one of the closest in NHL history. The first five games were decided by one goal (for only the second time in league history). Until Patrick Kane scored late in the third period of Game Six, neither team ever had more than a one-goal lead.
So it was a close series. That much is undisputed. But there was more to the series than just this singular storyline.
Puck Possession and Fancy Stats: During the regular season, both these teams excelled in puck possession numbers and this series figured to be a battle of puck possession. Would one team be able to impose its will on the other and dictate play by controlling the puck and generating more shot attempts? And would it make a difference?
During the six games – or 18 periods, if you want to break it down into 20-minute intervals – both teams had moments when they dominated play. For the Lightning, look at the first period in Game One, the first period in Game Four and much of the third period in Game Four. For the Blackhawks, they carried play for much of the first period in Game Three, the first period in Game Five and the second half of the second period in the decisive Game Six. These segments show that, while the series may have been “closely played”, it wasn’t necessarily “evenly played”. There were segments in games when one team had trouble dealing with an opposition momentum surge.
In none of those instances, however, did the team that carried play gain a substantial advantage on the scoreboard. At best, the dominating team picked up one goal. At worst, it came up empty. Why did this happen? First of all, both teams, when under siege, defended well without the puck. Through solid structure, they kept scoring chances to a manageable number, even though they couldn’t alleviate pressure. Second, goaltending was excellent during those moments, so the attacking team wasn’t often rewarded for its possession advantage. And lastly, puck-luck worked against the dominating team. In the first period of Game Three, the ‘Hawks, during a stretch in which they fired 16 consecutive shots on net, missed two open nets. Similar to the Lightning’s misfortunes in the first and third periods of Game Four. Chances didn’t materialize because puck bounced over Lightning sticks in front of the Chicago net. And Steven Stamkos couldn’t convert on an open net chance in the final minutes because his shot nicked off the stick of Brent Seabrook and deflected just wide.
The Fancy Stats aficionados assert that puck possession and shot attempts usually will be a factor in determining a winner and loser. But that’s over a large sample size. In a short series between two excellent defending teams getting top-notch goaltending, a puck possession advantage doesn’t always lead to victory.
Games 1-4 Versus Games 5-6: As mentioned above, both teams defended well even when they didn’t have momentum. In fact, both clubs defended well throughout the series. It’s one reason why there were only two games in which a team eclipsed two goals. Both clubs did it in the Lightning’s 4-3 win in Game Two and then the Bolts netted three goals in their Game Three triumph.
(As I wrote in my Extra Shift piece after Game Six, the ‘Hawks were complimentary of how well the Lightning defended throughout the series – that type of defending wasn’t associated with the speedy, high-scoring Lightning team. But the Bolts showed, particularly in their road wins during the Eastern Conference Final and throughout the Stanley Cup Final, that they also can be hard defensively on the opposition. This added wrinkle to their game will make them even tougher to face next year).
Yet neither team was perfect defensively, either. That’s not a condemnation of either side – it’s hard to play a perfect defensive game, especially against a skilled opponent. For a series that was so low-scoring, there were a number of blown leads and lead changes in the early games. In Game One, the Lightning lost a 1-0 lead, giving up two late goals. Both teams surrendered leads and then fell behind in Games Two and Three. While the ‘Hawks managed to protect their third period lead in Game Four after Brandon Saad’s goal, they leaned heavily on goaltender Corey Crawford and some of the aforementioned puck-luck to escape that game with a win.
But Games Five and Six were different. Playing with the lead in the third period of those games, the ‘Hawks showed their Championship pedigree. It’s true that in the final period of Games Five and Six, the Lightning had plenty of shots on Crawford. And the Chicago goalie was sharp in making some tough saves, including a number through screens and on tips. But given all that was at stake, the ‘Hawks defended as well as a team possibly can when playing with a one-goal lead in the third period. They swallowed up Crawford’s rebounds, so the Lightning didn’t get any second or third chances after initial shots. They executed clears and breakouts flawlessly, so the Lightning couldn’t generate any sustained pressure. They consistently moved pucks down the ice, so the Lightning had to counter the full 200-feet. And when they could do so, they cycled the puck effectively in the offensive zone, eating up time and preventing the Lightning from going on the attack.
Luck, Bounces and Breaks: Stanley Cup Champs need a lot during their journey through the playoffs. Great goaltending. High-end play from elite players. Contributions from depth players. And luck.
This isn’t meant to diminish Chicago’s accomplishment, which was, I think, as referenced in the earlier points of this piece, well-deserved. But to dismiss the luck factor is to ignore reality. Simply put, the ‘Hawks also got more breaks than the Lightning in this series – and those breaks took a couple of different forms.
First, injuries. All teams endure injuries throughout a long playoff run. But teams need to be lucky in terms of which players are affected – and how seriously. If one of your top players gets hurt, it hopefully will not significantly detract from his ability to make a difference. The Lightning got through the first three rounds avoiding an injury landmine, but stepped on two in the Final. Ben Bishop’s torn groin, an injury he sustained in Game Two, took him out of Game Four and hindered his movement in Games Three, Five and Six. Bishop played well even with his injury, though, and while he battled through obvious discomfort, he gave the Lightning a chance to win every game he played. Tyler Johnson’s broken wrist was a significant blow. Through the first three rounds, Johnson was arguably the best player in the NHL playoffs and his Triplets line was virtually unstoppable. While Johnson gamed it out after getting hurt in Game One, he was clearly affected. He couldn’t take faceoffs, had trouble controlling pucks and wasn’t able to be the same kind of difference-maker he had been earlier in the playoffs. Not to imply he shouldn’t have played. He still contributed a goal and an assist – and the Triplets did have their moments when they gave Chicago issues. But Johnson’s injury, plus the loss of Nikita Kucherov early in Game Five, took some of the fire out of the Lightning’s most dynamic line. Ultimately, this is how I view playoff injuries. They are not to be used as an excuse – and not one Lightning player, including Bishop and Johnson, did so. Rather, they are just another example of why the Stanley Cup is such a hard trophy to win.
Second, breaks and bounces. Early in the series, they went both ways. Jason Garrison’s GWG in Game Two deflected off the stick of Andrew Desjardins and knuckled past Crawford. I already mentioned the two open nets Chicago missed in the first period of Game Three. And the ‘Hawks hit some posts in the series, too.
But there’s no doubt that the ‘Hawks benefitted from some puck-luck at key times as the series progressed. In Games Four, Five and Six, Chicago scored six goals. The ‘Hawks got some breaks on four of them. In Game Four, Saad’s winning goal occurred after Andrei Vasilevskiy swatted the puck off Saad’s stick. But it ricocheted right back to Saad, who deposited a backhander. In Game Five, Patrick Sharp’s goal came after Bishop and Victor Hedman collided and the puck slid past both of them to Sharp. On Antoine Vermette’s winner in Game Five, the puck hopped over Jason Garrison’s stick at center ice, which enabled Kris Versteeg to counter on a partial breakaway. Even though Garrison lifted Versteeg’s stick, the puck stayed with Versteeg long enough for him to slide it in on Bishop. The puck hit Bishop’s pad and caromed perfectly to Vermette for the goal. And in Game Six, Patrick Kane’s insurance goal came moments after Braydon Coburn broke his stick on a Grade-A scoring chance in the offensive zone. The broken stick allowed the ‘Hawks to counter on a three-on-two.
On the other side, the Lightning narrowly missed numerous chances in the final three games. Here are just a few examples. I referenced Stamkos’ open net look late in Game Four. In Game Five, moments before Sharp’s goal, Kucherov stole the puck from Crawford, but couldn’t finish into the open net. And in the first half of Game Six, in addition to Stamkos hitting the crossbar, the Lightning had several players open for tap-in goals, but pucks skipped past their sticks.
But that’s hockey. Sometimes the bounces go your way. Sometimes not. Credit the Chicago players for putting themselves in position to take advantage of those breaks. Perhaps the ‘Hawks were due for a bounce after losing Game Seven in the Conference Finals last year to the Kings on an overtime shot that deflected off a ‘Hawks player. And don’t forget that the Lightning, as several players acknowledged after the Final, benefitted from some breaks in the first three rounds.
Final Analysis: It was, as stated at the top, a close series that could have gone either way. In the end, though, two things stood out as the difference – and I’ve referenced them in this column. First, in a series so close, a bounce and/or break can separate the champs from the runners-up. And late in the series, the ‘Hawks got them. Second, the ‘Hawks experience and playoff pedigree was a factor in how composed they were, especially in Games Five and Six. So congrats to the Blackhawks, a deserving Stanley Cup Champion (again).
I’ll have more columns throughout the summer, including an overall season recap. I hope everyone enjoys the (nice and short) offseason!