Game Time: 7:00PM Central
TV/Radio: NBC, CBC, TVA, WGN-AM 720
Ache With Me: Raw Charge
And now the home stretch. With a win on Wednesday night, the Hawks now return to Tampa with the series tied at two games apiece. And in order for them to return back to the west side on Monday with the ultimate goal fully in reach, they will have to do something they have not done yet in this post season, and that’s win Game 5 on the road.
In the two days since Game 4, it’s been a nonstop string of antics from Tampa coach Jon Cooper in the press. After taking a “mental break” on Thursday, sending assistant Rick Bowness to the press the day after a loss in the Final, something a basketball coach or baseball manager would be absolutely destroyed in the press for, Cooper came out and said yesterday that three days rest for Ben Bishop was his plan the entire time. Even if that’s not bullshit, then he should have been questioned why he was willing to take a “schedule loss” in the Final when he had the opportunity to take a two game lead on the Hawks. Not that spreading misinformation during this time of year is a capital crime by any stretch of the imagination, but the behavior is just odd and rife with logical fallacies from a man many consider to be one of the most throbbing minds in the sport.
In any event, it’s still completely up in the air as to whether or not Ben Bishop plays tonight. He took the starter’s reps at morning skate, but he did so on Wednesday and his comments after practice were also cryptic. So no one knows anything as usual. A slightly hobbled Ben Bishop or an inexperienced Andrei Vasilevskiy at home likely evens out anyway, and the Hawks can’t be concerned with who is actually occupying the crease. If Tampa limits the opportunities as they did in front of Vasilevskiy the majority of Game 4, either goalie should not be forced to have to do too much, and both have nearly identical save percentages through the first four games in the .917 range.
The goalie situation has also been largely been rendered immaterial (emphasis on “large”) by the play of Victor Hedman, who has simply been dominant against any and all matchups, both home and away. His 61.31% share of shot attempts while on ice has been incredible, and has kept the entire Tampa blue line from drowning. Partner Anton Stralman is slightly above the 50% mark, which means the few minutes he spots away from Hedman have been less than productive. And Nikita Nesterov starts literally every shift in the offensive zone as a seventh defenseman, so his possession numbers skew to the point of not mattering. But the dunderheaded bottom four of Sustr, Carle, Garrison, and Coburn are all getting absolutely torched. Cooper hasn’t had to play Hedman to extreme measures yet, with the highest amount of ice time coming in Game 4 at just over 27 minutes, but it’s something to continually monitor as the Bolts’ rearguards struggle away from him.
In front the story stays the same for the Lightning, who are still waiting for Steven Stamkos to break free and convert in this series. Though most fans would tell anyone that they’d take a 2-2 series tie coming home for Game 5 with Stamkos yet to register a point. His linemates in Valtteri Filppula and Alex Killorn make up half of the 4 Tampa forwards that are above water, and combined in clowning Brent Seabrook and TVR on Wednesday. The unit as a whole doesn’t start even half of their shifts in the offensive zone, which could be a hindrance, but Cooper can’t trust the Triplets in those situations with Tyler Johnson only taking one faceoff in the last 3 games, and that came in game 2. And Cedric Pauquette was awfully quiet after game 3 when Toews notched the opener. Game 3 saw the Lightning forwards not nearly as freewheeling as they had been (until they were pressing to tie the game late), likely as a result of Vasilevskiy being in net and limiting his exposure. It seems unlikely they’d go to that method again at home, but despite not outwardly appearing to have the bodies to pull that off, if the forwards are committed to back pressure, that plays right into the strengths of their obelisk bottom four defensemen.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, after starting Game 4 with three lines that made no sense whatsoever, Joel Quenneville has gotten back to a mostly traditional configuration. Patrick Sharp will stay with Toews and Hossa, while Brandon Saad remains opposite Patrick Kane with Brad Richards in between on the top six. If Hedman remains affixed to Kane, he at least has an option to get the puck to Stralman’s side to have Saad break in with speed, and that still leaves the Toews line to do what they do best. After once again proving he’s not a center, Andrew Shaw is back in his rightful place on the wing on the fourth line, while Kris Versteeg will be skating with Vermette and Teuvo, which has potential disaster written all over it.
Kimmo Timonen will stay in the lineup despite not really looking any different or better than he did prior to his sabbatical, and Trevor Van Riemsdyk appeared to take a bit of a step back from his Game 3 form getting caught swimming a bit. As has been the case throughout the post-season, particularly on the road, Joel Quenneville will hide these two with babysitters for as long as he can until the game situation warrants leaning on his top four. And with Johnny Oduya basically playing with one arm, it’s forced Duncan Keith into taking tougher assignments with Hjalmarsson and has cost the Hawks a bit of the drive they had been so relying on from him.
Corey Crawford rebounded nicely from Game 3’s loss, even if there was little that could be done about any of the goals he allowed, and the same could be said for the lone marker on Wednesday, where a great play was made and he had no chance. The numbers overall in the series aren’t fantastic for Crawford (a .913 in this series), but he’s given the Hawks a chance to win every game, and he’ll need to be solid tonight, particularly with his reading the play. The Lightning change directions so fast with passing or get into shooting lanes for tips out of nowhere that his anticipation will have to be 100% on point, with the hope that the corps in front of him limits their opportunities.
With the series rounding the bend, one of the major focal points of the discussion is the Hawks’ record during that time, with a 42-15 record in Games 4-7, and now winning all 8 series in which they’ve been tied 2-2. But as stated above, they have lost both Game 5’s they have played to this point in the post-season. And there simply is not that kind of margin for error against this very fast and talented Lightning team. Coming out as they did in Game 5 against Anaheim simply isn’t an option. They will need to be smart at their own blue line particularly with zone exits and not just blindly fling the puck up the boards, particularly when Victor Hedman is on the ice. And they will need to maximize their speed crossing the Tampa line when anyone but 77 in blue is patrolling it. Regardless who is in goal, the only universal strategy against any goalie is to get enough shots so that more eventually go in.
This is where the series turns. This is where the final steps are taken to achieve the only goal this team has had since June 1st of 2014. Seize the game and this opportunity knowing what could be one step away at home. Let’s go Hawks.