The more I watch this series the more I think Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford doesn't get his due. I know he had a rocky start to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, getting supplanted at one point by backup Scott Darling. But I think he's definitely the reason Chicago is leading the Tampa Bay Lightning with a chance to win another championship in Game 6 Monday at United Center (8 pm. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).
When you look at the saves Crawford made late in the second period and early in the third period in Game 5 on Saturday, it was clear he buttoned down and gave the Blackhawks a chance. Right before Blackhawks forward Antoine Vermette's game-winner, Crawford made two or three great saves that kept Game 5 tied. He was the reason the Blackhawks won that game. And with no clear-cut Conn Smythe Trophy candidate in this series, Crawford would be my pick if the Blackhawks win tonight.
Crawford doesn't receive a ton of respect as a goaltender; people like to say it's easy to play behind a team this good. But at the end of the night he wins, and this postseason he's had to make several big saves to do it behind a defense that is thinner than it's ever been. If Chicago ends up winning this series, he'll be one of two full-time starters in the League to have won the Stanley Cup twice, along with the Los Angeles Kings' Jonathan Quick. Eventually people have to realize there might be a reason.
STAMKOS MUST GET GOING
It's no secret that Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos has had a streaky, and at times difficult, postseason. With no goals in the Stanley Cup Final it's worth asking why, but I think it's just a culmination of Chicago's defense and some bad luck. If you watch Stamkos play in this series you can't say he isn't working hard. He's skating a million miles an hour and is all over the ice. If anything he might be trying too hard and sometimes that ends up being just as bad as not trying at all.
That said, I think the reason Stamkos has struggled really is just randomness. I watch him play all the time. He's got the puck, he's dangerous, he's flying around the ice and getting shots. I think it's just crazy bad luck that his shots aren't going in. You have to give Chicago a lot of credit defensively, but if you watch Stamkos play, I don't know what else he could be doing to get the puck in the net.
The bottom line, though, is this: Goal scorers are judged by the goals they score in big games. Right now the Lightning need Stamkos to score desperately. The "Triplet" line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat has been shut down, and while Kucherov is probable for Game 6, according to Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who knows how effective he'll be? The Lightning need to find a way to get Stamkos going. Just playing hard isn't enough right now; he needs to have results.
STANLEY IS COMING BACK TO CHICAGO
I said at the start of the series that I thought Chicago would win in six games. I think after Game 4 the Blackhawks realized they were lucky to be tied 2-2 in the best-of-7 series, having not really been the better team once to that point. As a result, they took care of business Saturday.
Game 5 was Chicago's most complete effort of the series even if we still haven't seen the Blackhawks put their best effort together. I think a lot of that has to do with Tampa Bay's defense preventing Chicago from doing what it likes to do. But how crazy is it that Chicago is one game from winning the Stanley Cup without playing its best game?
This is a team that is battle-tested and experienced, and perhaps most importantly it knows a rally from a 3-2 series deficit can be done. After all, the Blackhawks did it against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Final. I think they'll talk about that in the dressing room tonight. Chicago knows it can't give Tampa Bay any life and that will give them the motivation to finish the job.
Monday, for the third time in six seasons, the Blackhawks will win the Stanley Cup.