Every day of the Stanley Cup final brings at least one micro-controversy, one of those little issues that flare up sometime around mid-morning and cause a good day or two of fist-shaking before eventually being forgotten.
At one point yesterday, the issue of the moment was a beginner’s guide to hockey published by one of the local Tampa Bay papers.1 The reaction was predictable: old-school diehards rolling their eyes at a city that has had a team for 22 years needing a refresher on icing, followed by more forgiving types scolding those diehards to be more welcoming to new fans.
Still undetermined at press time: Why Victor Hedman weighs 400 pounds in that drawing.
Every sport’s fan base gets its back up over new fans, but it seems to be a specialty in the hockey world. After all, NHL fans have spent so many years being told what’s wrong with their sport that they’re instinctively defensive of their turf. But that approach does more harm than good, because hockey has plenty of room for new fans. There’s lots of space available on the bandwagon, and the more rookie fans who climb aboard, the better.
So in that spirit, let’s do this game story in the style of a beginner’s guide to NHL hockey. Consider it a peace offering to any new fans, in Tampa Bay or beyond, who are trying to figure out the rules of this fun but occasionally confusing game.
Rule no. 1: Hockey is a sport that is played by two teams. Or at least it’s supposed to be. As last night’s first period wore on, it began to seem as if the Blackhawks had missed that particular memo. The Lightning dominated, outpacing the Hawks in shot attempts and often spending extended periods in the Chicago zone.
That sort of thing isn’t news when it comes to the Lightning, a tremendously talented team that can often overwhelm lesser opposition. But it is new for the Blackhawks, who haven’t fallen into that lesser-opponent category in a long time. The Blackhawks are the bullies of the NHL postseason and have been for years, and while nobody can be expected to bring their best game every night, it was still stunning to see them chasing the play for as long as they were.
The early imbalance stoked an already enthusiastic Tampa Bay crowd, one that had just finished being blasted by a series of pregame scoreboard videos that ran for roughly as long as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Having endured that ordeal, they celebrated by cheering on the Lightning toward what quickly started to feel like an inevitable first goal.
Rule no. 2: In hockey, teams attempt to score a goal by directing the puck into their opponent’s net. This can be done in any number of ways; popular methods include the slap shot, the backhand, or the deflection. Or, if you’re Alex Killorn, all three things at once.
I’d strongly encourage you to click that link and watch Killorn’s first-period goal a few times, because I’m honestly not sure I can do it justice. Anton Stralman takes a shot from the point that’s almost comically unthreatening as it flutters toward the net like a knuckleball, headed well wide. And then, at least theoretically on purpose, Kilorn reaches back and swats the puck out of the air. The NHL’s official box score described it as a “tip-in,” which is technically the correct term for a shot that’s redirected but doesn’t seem quite adequate for a play that more closely resembled someone delivering a midflight 7-iron to a monarch butterfly.
The goal came less than five minutes in, and gave the Lightning a 1-0 lead. In today’s NHL, that tends to be important.
Rule no. 3: The winning team is the one that scores the most goals over the course of the game. In theory, that means that the lead can change hands several times, and comebacks are possible. In reality, not so much, and that’s especially true in games involving these two teams. The Blackhawks came into last night sporting a 9-1 record when scoring first in these playoffs; the Lightning were even better at a perfect 9-0. When they score first, they win, and Killorn’s circus act had just given them that first goal.
Tampa Bay fans spend much of each game chanting “Let’s go Bolts.” If you happen to suffer from an acute inability to interpret chants at sporting events,2 that can end up sounding confusingly like “Let’s go home,” which would be far better, as if cocky Lightning fans are already chalking up the win and moving on to the next one. As the Lightning followed Killorn’s goal with more and more time in the Chicago zone, you started to wonder if that might be right.
That’s a thing, right? Please tell me I’m not the only one.
Rule no. 4: A minor penalty occurs when a team commits a rules infraction. (Playoff addendum: As long as it’s in the first or second period, maybe occasionally in the third if it’s a real blowout.)
Neither team clicked on the power play last night, combining for just five opportunities between them. But penalties still played a pivotal role, especially one called late in the first period against Tampa Bay’s Jason Garrison for cross-checking. Chicago’s power play looked sharp, generating several solid chances, and while none of those ended up in the back of the net, the sequence marked the first time all game that the Hawks looked dangerous. It seemed to give them a boost heading into the intermission, and perhaps some confidence that they had more to give on the night.
The Lightning took two more minors in the first half of the second period, making it three calls in a row that had gone against them.3 Again, the Hawks couldn’t convert, but the time spent on the penalty kill seemed to further throw off whatever rhythm Tampa Bay had found in the first.
This wasn’t lost on the more paranoid fans in the upper levels of Amalie Arena. “It’s all about the ratings,” screeched one fan located directly behind our section of press row as yet another Lightning headed for the box. “Conspiracy theory,” he added helpfully several seconds later.
Finally, Tampa Bay broke the streak with a power play of their own later in the second, one that came when Hawks forward Kris Versteeg’s attempt at crashing the Lightning net resulted in … well, there’s really no nice way to say this, but it resulted in him eating the goal post. That earned him what would end up being the last minor of the game — two minutes for goaltender interference.4 It was a sloppy play by Versteeg, granted, but as the game wore on, his strategy of crashing Bishop’s crease and hoping for the best felt like it was on the right track.
As an added bonus, Amalie Arena’s mammoth scoreboard shows a close-up of the player in the penalty box for the duration of their time served, so fans got to watch Versteeg spend two minutes trying to remember where he was.
Rule no. 5: Each team may deploy one goaltender. Or, in Tampa Bay’s case, two goaltenders’ worth of human squished into one. Ben Bishop was coming off his Game 7 shutout of the Rangers, one that made him the first visiting goaltender in the history of the league to win a Game 7 in Madison Square Garden. For the first two periods of last night’s game, he kept that shutout streak intact, turning away 13 shots.
It wasn’t much of a workload, but he was solid when he needed to be. At the other end, Corey Crawford was every bit as good, at least if we don’t count goals involving Killorn spitting on the laws of physics. By the midway point in the game, Crawford had been the busier of the two goaltenders. He’d get busier as the night went on, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Oh, speaking of “bit” …
Rule no. 6: No biting. You wouldn’t think we’d have to spell that one out, but here we are.
Rule no. 7: Players may change lines on the fly. This rule, which is unique to hockey and applies to everyone with the exception of Duncan “I’ll just stay on, thanks” Keith,5 allows both coaches to try to match lines and dictate which players will face the other team’s top threats. Last night, we learned a few interesting things about how the two teams seem to want to approach the series.
He played a game-high 29:15 last night.
As expected, the Lightning used the last change to get Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman out against the Hawks’ top line of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Brandon Saad as often as possible. That was no surprise, and coach Jon Cooper had basically tipped his hand before the game. The Lightning’s top line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov saw a fairly even split between the Hawks’ top two pairs. (As with previous games, Chicago’s fifth and sixth defensemen barely played.)
More interestingly, the Lightning didn’t seem bothered by occasionally having Johnson’s line out against Kane and Toews, despite the latter’s reputation as a shutdown center. They certainly preferred to get their traditional third line checking unit out instead, but especially early on they didn’t shy away from going strength against strength. That could be a fun matchup to watch, especially once the series returns to Chicago and Joel Quenneville, who’s a more notorious line-matcher than Cooper, gets the last change.
As for last night, the matchups worked for Tampa Bay — Kane and Toews were held pointless. That’s the good news. We’ll get to the bad news.
Rule no. 8: The road team wears the white jerseys; the home team wears the colored ones. Even seasoned fans can have trouble with this one, especially on a night like last night, when the hometown Lightning seemed intent on playing the perfect road game in their own building.
It’s hard to blame them — they’d just finished pulling the feat off twice in New York. Against the Blackhawks, they seemed determined to follow the blueprint again: Score first, then shut down the opposition and walk out with a low-scoring win. Heck, they even managed to take the crowd out of the game, or at least the large percentage of the crowd that was wearing Chicago colors.
On the night, the Hawks managed just 21 shots, their lowest total of the playoffs. That’s a good road game for the Lightning right there, even if they did it in their own arena. They just had to finish it.
Rule no. 9: When you’re up 1-0, the missed insurance goals always come back to haunt you. Technically, this may not be a hard and fast rule, but it might as well be. When you’re up by one in a crucial game, the hockey gods will gift you with chances to double the lead. And if you fail, they will have their vengeance.
The Lightning had their chances as the second period wore on. Brenden Morrow couldn’t convert a goal mouth tap-in, with the puck skittering by him as he swiped at it.6 Crawford stopped Steven Stamkos on a pair of great chances in the period’s final minutes, one on a blast from the faceoff circle and another from directly in front.
Earlier in the day, Morrow had been lamenting his lack of goals so far in this postseason. “I think it’s human nature, you start gripping the stick,” he said. “Once one goes in, it’s easy breezy after that for a while.” He’ll have to wait at least one more game.
The best chance came midway through the third, when Ryan Callahan sprang clear for a clean breakaway. Crawford turned him aside, and longtime fans knew what had to come next.
Rule no. 10: A regulation hockey game is 60 minutes long. If it were 40 or 50, this story would be a happy ending for Lightning fans. But as Blackhawks fans know well by now, you don’t get to put a game against Chicago into the win column until you’ve held them off for the full 60. And, as more than a few playoff opponents have come to learn, that’s easier said than done.
The first Blackhawks goal of the night finally came with less than seven minutes left, as yet another strong play by Keith led to a dish to Teuvo Teravainen, who fired one that seemed to hit a body or two on the way past a screened Bishop. Almost two minutes later, a Lightning turnover in their own end forced by Teravainen found its way to Antoine Vermette in the slot, and he buried one into the top corner.
Just like that, a 1-0 win had become a 2-1 loss, a 9-0 record when scoring first had become 9-1, and a 1-0 series lead for Tampa Bay had shifted over to Chicago’s side of the ledger. These are the Blackhawks. This is what they do.
After the game, stunned Lightning players shook their heads over a winnable game that had slipped away, while Chicago’s talked about the importance of having faith in the process and sticking to their system.
“We were a little hesitant in a lot of puck areas, and you can’t be against that team,” said Versteeg.7 “I think we stuck with our game plan. It wasn’t so much adjustments, but just stuck with our game plan. And we got a couple of fortunate bounces, and a couple of great shots.”
He also said he was fine from the post incident. “That was a little ugly,” he offered.
It sounds simple when you put it like that. It always seems to be simple when you watch the Blackhawks do it. Making this stuff look simple is how you get yourself two Stanley Cup rings, with room on another finger for a third.
In the locker room after the win, Keith was asked if this win could be called typical.
“I don’t know if it’s a typical Blackhawk win. I think we can be better,” Keith said. “I don’t think we always want to play from behind and find a way. It would be nice to be able to get the lead and play with the lead.”
The idea of the Hawks being better can’t sit well in Tampa Bay right now, but Keith is almost certainly right. The Blackhawks will be better, and the Lightning will have to match them. And that will be fun to watch, because it means the games still to come in this series will be better too.
Not that last night’s wasn’t pretty good in its own right. If you’re a brand-new hockey fan, here’s hoping you stick around for more.