After two games in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning have laid the groundwork for what has the look of a long, exciting, evenly-matched series. As the series shifts to the Windy City on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports), here are some things I've noticed and that I'll be looking for with the best-of-7 series tied 1-1.
TAMPA BAY NEEDED TO WIN GAME 2
In my estimation, the Lightning have outplayed the Blackhawks for most of the first two games. Though Chicago put a large amount of pressure on Tampa Bay in Game 1 to get those two goals in the third period, we're a quick, two-minute flurry away from Tampa Bay having a 2-0 series lead. I also think Tampa Bay answered any questions Saturday. The Lightning came out, responded with a great start and then came from behind when they lost the lead. They showed a lot of character in Game 2.
Obviously, we know Chicago is Chicago at this point, and it played very well Saturday too, but Tampa Bay, I would say, has been the better team, and Saturday it needed to be. I think if you've been around hockey for any length of time, you know that if you fall down 2-0 it's pretty hard to come back. And if you lose the first two games at home it's virtually impossible.
The Blackhawks did what they needed to do in Tampa Bay. They got a split to take home with them. But the Lightning played with desperation, fire and determination, and they found a way to win a game they had to have. It was a gut-check win for Tampa Bay all the way around.
CHANGING ON THE FLY
After losing Game 1 by scoring early and trying to bottle up the Blackhawks for 55 minutes with their defense, the Lightning had it fall apart on them when Chicago finally broke through in the third period. That kind of brinksmanship works sometimes, but it's also a pretty tenuous strategy when you're playing a team as offensively explosive as Chicago. It was clear to me that Tampa Bay changed its defensive philosophy in Game 2.
The Lightning still had men back, but they were much more aggressive. They forechecked when they could, and when they had to pull back into their own zone, they pulled back aggressively by attacking the puck carrier a little bit. The Lightning were forcing Chicago's forwards to make plays before they got deep into the offensive zone. In Game 1, the Lightning basically made their stand at center ice and tried to just stay back and get in the way of pucks.
Like any good team, Tampa Bay realized this was a flawed strategy. Chicago had a couple of chances late in Game 2, but not many. The Lightning looked much more aggressive in the final five or six minutes even though they once again had the lead. They did a great job of being in shooting lanes, but also did a great job of pinching up the wall. It was an excellent performance by Tampa Bay at each end of the ice.
CHICAGO'S BIG GUNS NEED TO PLAY
Patrick Sharp has four goals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Jonathan Toews has barely made a dent in the first two games of this series and Patrick Kane didn't have a shot in Game 2. It's obvious the Lightning's focus defensively is to hold down Toews and Kane and force secondary players to beat them. In Game 1 they did, in Game 2 they didn't. It will be very interesting to see what happens in Game 3 now that Chicago coach Joel Quenneville will have last change. Keeping Toews and Kane together or splitting them up has been a big dilemma for Quenneville, but at home, he may be able to keep them together and stoke some offense if he sees the matchup he wants.
We've come to expect these players, as well as Marian Hossa, to play well in big games. So far they haven't been good enough in this series. They need to find a way to play like they did in the first three rounds of the postseason.
I think the Western Conference Final might be a good indicator of what will happen though. With players like Ryan Kesler draped all over them, it took a few games for Chicago's top guns to find matchups in which they'd be freed up against the Anaheim Ducks. Once they did, Kane and Toews each got going. I think that's what we can look for here. So far the Lightning have done a great job bottling up the Blackhawks' top players, but I think Quenneville can find a way to adapt.
WE'RE GOING TO SEE ANOTHER SPLIT
I've been very impressed with Tampa Bay the past two rounds. We've seen that the Lightning can play with the Blackhawks, and this should be a long, hard-fought series. I expect Chicago to regroup and take Game 3 on Monday, but I also expect a split in Chicago.