Ah, the old rotating goalies trick. Works every time.
Saturday night’s Lightning win over the Blackhawks, which knotted their Stanley Cup final at one game apiece, was highlighted by a wild third period in which the Lightning made three goaltending changes after starter Ben Bishop couldn’t continue due to … well, something. That brought in rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy for one shift, during which the Lightning scored the eventual winner. Bishop returned shortly after and played a few more minutes before leaving again, with Vasilevskiy making five saves the rest of the way to seal the win in relief.
It was a bizarre and confusing scene — Steven Stamkos told reporters that the players were relying on the PA announcements to figure out who their current goalie was — and it led to several questions. Was Bishop, to put this delicately, suffering from flu-like symptoms? (Apparently not.) Was he hurt? (It would seem so, although everyone appears to have a different theory over just what the problem might be.) And when exactly did whatever it was start to bother him? (Well, that part gets tricky.)
Based on the timing of his exit, plenty of fans assumed that Bishop had been hurt on the Blackhawks’ controversial goal early in the third period that tied the game 3-3. That play saw Marian Hossa appear to interfere with Bishop by shoving the goalie’s pad with his stick.1 But there are two problems with that theory. The first is that Bishop’s immediate reaction of chasing down the officials to protest the non-call sure didn’t look like a guy who’d just suffered an injury. The second is that there had already been signs that something wasn’t right before the goal.
It was the sort of play that could be reviewable next year but isn’t now.
Those signs came on the stoppage before the goal, when Bishop called over teammates Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman for a brief conference in the crease. The two defensemen then headed for the bench — not for a line change, but to report something to the team’s trainer. It seemed as if something was up, and that suspicion grew stronger minutes later when Bishop himself sought out the trainer after heading to the bench on a delayed penalty. Minutes later, during a TV timeout, he headed off the ice and straight down the hallway to the Lightning dressing room, and the great Ben Bishop Mystery was on.
Of course, it all leads to the most important question of them all: Can he play tonight? Lightning coach Jon Cooper danced around the question yesterday, saying Bishop “could be available” and that we might find out more when the Lightning take to the ice for today’s game-day skate, which is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. ET.
If Bishop can’t go, the switch over to Vasilevskiy won’t be as big a downgrade as you might expect. The 20-year-old Russian is one of the top goaltending prospects in hockey, and he has experience playing games both internationally and in the KHL. That doesn’t compare to the level of pressure he’d face in a Stanley Cup final start, of course, and maybe he melts down in the bright spotlight. But there’s a chance he could be every bit as good as Bishop has been, and maybe even better.
As we await word of who’ll get the start tonight, let’s take a look back over the past few days in Tampa for some of the other things we don’t yet know about this series, and a handful of things that we do.
What we know: The Triplets are alive and (probably) well
The Lightning’s top line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov had been deadly over the first two rounds, but had slowed down midway through the conference finals against New York. Of particular concern was Johnson, who came into Saturday with a league-leading 12 playoff goals but hadn’t found the net since Game 3 against the Rangers.
That had led to speculation that he may be hurt, and that speculation only increased when he briefly left Saturday morning’s skate. He denied it, because he’s a hockey player and that’s what he’d do if his rib cage were jutting out of his chest, but with the Lightning held to two goals or fewer in four of those five games, his mini-slump was developing into a major story.
For now, at least, we can relax. Johnson scored the Lightning’s third goal midway through the second. It was an ugly goal, one that had no business getting by Corey Crawford, but it counted, and combined with Kucherov’s marker seven minutes earlier it gave the Triplets a two-goal night. Healthy or not, they’ll take it.
What we don’t know: When the Blackhawks stars will break through
That leads us to the series’ other big stars up front, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The two have been just about unstoppable through most of the playoffs, especially when deployed on the same line. But over the first two games against Tampa Bay, they’ve been held to just one lone assist between them. On Saturday, Kane didn’t even manage a shot on goal, which is just about unheard of.
You’ll note that we’re asking “when” Toews and Kane will start scoring, not “if”; they’re just too good to be shut down over the course of an entire series. But the Lightning have done a good enough job over the first two games that Chicago coach Joel Quenneville split the duo up midway through Game 2, with Hossa moving up to play on Toews’s wing while Kane drops back to a line centered by Brad Richards.
A big part of the reason for Kane and Toews’s quiet start has been the play of the Lightning’s top pairing of Hedman and Stralman. But plenty of credit also goes to the play of Cedric Paquette, the 21-year-old Lightning center who drew the task of going head-to-head with Toews. It was such a potentially overwhelming assignment that Cooper didn’t even bother to tell him about it before Game 1; Paquette was left to figure it out for himself when he kept getting sent over the boards and finding Toews waiting for him.2 On Saturday, Paquette even chipped in with the Lightning’s first goal, a rare offensive contribution from a Tampa Bay bottom six that hadn’t contributed much of anything offensively in weeks.
At one point, Cooper tried to explain his rationale for keeping Paquette in the dark with a metaphor about a million-dollar check and a Porsche. After an awkward pause, he asked the assembled media if it had made any sense. Informed that, no, it had not remotely made sense, Cooper shrugged and said, “You can make fun of me later.”
After Saturday’s game, Paquette admitted that the lack of scoring outside the top two lines had been discouraging. “I was really frustrated,” he said. “My playoff wasn’t going the way I wanted … Coop told us, ‘You guys need to chip in if we want to win that Cup.’”
After Game 1, Cooper hung the nickname “Captain Everything” on Toews, and it’s a good one. But based on the first two games, we might have to start calling Paquette “Captain Everything Else.”
What we know: Those matchups will look different in Chicago
With the series shifting to the United Center for Games 3 and 4, the Blackhawks will have last change. That means the Lightning will have to work a lot harder to match lines on the fly, something the team hasn’t always focused on during the season.
The Lightning will almost certainly keep trying to get Hedman and Stralman out against Toews and Kane as much as possible, whether the Hawks’ stars are playing together or not. On Sunday, Cooper suggested that he’d be comfortable letting a line other than Paquette’s go against Toews, so it will be interesting to see how hard the Lightning work to keep the rookie in his shutdown role. For what it’s worth, I asked Paquette if it was any harder to match up with a guy like Toews when you’re jumping off the bench and having to go find him rather than lining up against him right off the faceoff. He didn’t think it would be a big factor. “It’s the same thing I think,” he said. “Maybe there’s a little less battling at the faceoff. But it’s the same game in the D-zone.”
What we don’t know: Should the Hawks be worried about Crawford?
When asked about his goaltender’s performance after Game 2, Quenneville gave a pointed two-word answer: “Just OK.”
That may have been overly kind. Crawford had a rough game, and he looked especially bad on Johnson’s goal. He acknowledged as much, saying, “I don’t want to give that up. I don’t think [Johnson] was trying to do that. He kind of fanned on his backhand, hit the side of the net, I don’t know if it bounced up. I kind of lost it from there, but I felt something on my back. You can’t give those up in these games.”
Crawford played well in Game 1,3 which was probably his best game since making 60 saves in Chicago’s triple-overtime Game 2 win against the Ducks. But he struggled badly on Saturday, and with the Lightning facing their own goaltending drama, the Blackhawks can’t afford to have their guy drifting into one of his own.
You might even want to credit him with an unofficial shutout given how ridiculous Alex Killorn’s goal was, although Crawford disagreed, saying he felt he played it poorly.
What we know: Teuvo Teravainen has arrived
The highly touted Blackhawks rookie had a tough start to the playoffs, even spending a few games in the press box as a healthy scratch. But he’s been getting better as the playoffs went on and now has goals in each of the first two games. He’s even figuring out how to handle the media; he got a big laugh Saturday morning when he suggested that he was going to let his linemates do the scoring so that he wouldn’t have to deal with us.
He apparently abandoned that plan, sniping the goal that put the Hawks up 2-1 in the second. Yesterday, Toews said, “Teuvo just keeps getting better and better,” and it’s hard to argue. Twenty-year-old rookies in the Stanley Cup final — what can’t they do?
What we don’t: Will Jonathan Drouin ever be seen again?
Oh, right. Then there’s Drouin, the Lighting rookie and third overall pick in 20134 who’d been exiled to the press box for most of the playoffs.
If you’re a Lightning fan, how many times in the past month have you pictured this current team with Seth Jones on the blue line? It’s OK to admit it.
He finally got into the lineup for the first time in almost a month on Saturday, and early on he looked great — fast, hungry, and a threat each time he touched the puck. But then came a classic “trying to do too much” turnover in the Chicago zone that led to a Blackhawks rush the other way and a scoring chance with about five minutes left in the period. He saw two more shifts in the first, three shifts totaling just 90 seconds of ice time in the second (one of which saw him on the ice for the Blackhawks’ first goal), and four shifts and roughly two and a half minutes in the third.
So it’s tempting to say Drouin coughed up his big chance along with the puck on that first-period gaffe. But after the game, his coach went out of his way to praise the rookie’s night. “I thought Jo was great. He did everything we wanted him to,” Cooper said. “I thought he did a heck of a job.”
That could end up being a case of kind words to soften the blow of heading back to the sideline, but it sure sounds like Drouin will get another chance. If so, he’s dangerous enough to produce a game-changing goal in this series. We’ll just have to see which team it’s for.
What we know: The fun has arrived
Wednesday’s opener had its moments but came across more like a feeling-out process than the kind of run-and-gun test of wills we’d been hoping for. Saturday night, by contrast, was a fantastic game, with end-to-end action and all sorts of story lines. As Cooper put it yesterday, “I don’t know how somebody could leave that rink last night and not be an instant hockey fan if that was your first game.”
What we don’t: If and when the bad blood will follow
Memo to the Blackhawks and Lightning. The pace is nice. The skill is nice. The scoring is nice. But at some point, we’re going to need you guys to start hating each other.
This series hasn’t really had much bad blood yet, aside from a handful of halfhearted scrums. Even the one nasty moment so far in the series — Andrew Shaw’s alleged bite on Hedman in Game 1 — was mostly forgotten by the weekend.
History tells us that the détente is unlikely to last. Here’s hoping the seemingly inevitable (appropriately controlled) flare-up comes soon.
What we know: It’s time to give Tampa some credit as a hockey town
Admittedly, the Tampa area’s turn as host to the hockey world got off to a rough start when the local paper published that beginner’s guide to hockey. Then a few veteran reporters mentioned a lack of buzz around town. If you’d already made up your mind about Tampa’s lack of true hockey town bona fides, it wasn’t hard to find supporting evidence. Granted, as a Southern U.S. team that arrived in the NHL as part of the league’s oddly executed wave of early ’90s expansion, the Lightning had two strikes against them before they even got to the plate. And in the days around Game 1, the team didn’t do itself many favors — especially when it comes to the poorly conceived attempts to limit ticket sales to opposing fans.
But having spent the better part of a week there, I can report that Tampa did just fine. The crowds were loud. The atmosphere outside Amalie Arena was fun. Local TV ratings were excellent. The entire downtown is covered in Lightning banners, although haphazardly, as if someone squeezed off a few blasts of a logo shotgun from a hovering helicopter and declared “Good enough!”
But it is good enough. Nobody’s mistaking Tampa for Montreal or Winnipeg or even Chicago, but the residents sure seem to be having a good time. Granted, you don’t see many Lightning fans wearing jerseys around town, but that’s because those things are long sleeves and this place is roughly 110 degrees in the middle of the night, and you’d melt into a blue-and-white puddle before you made it three blocks. But they’re trying. During dinner at a quasi-fancy restaurant Friday night, I saw a few Chicago fans wearing Blackhawks gear5 cut through the dining room to get to the bar, and one Lightning fan stopped eating his meal long enough to boo them. That’s the sort of thing that happens in a hockey town. Swap out “boo” for “stab,” and it would even feel like you were in Canada.
Look, I said quasi-fancy.
There’s no doubt Chicago will be jumping for the next few days, at least assuming the Blackhawks’ army of fans make it back from their Florida invasion in time. But let’s give a little credit to Tampa. It’s probably a better hockey town than you think.
What we don’t know, technically, although if feels like we kind of do: How many times we’ll be back
The series shifts to Chicago for Games 3 and 4, and then we’ll be back in Tampa for Game 5 on Saturday. In theory, that could be the last game of the final. But this sure feels like a series where we can go ahead and pencil in a Game 6 and maybe even a Game 7, which would be in Tampa next Wednesday.
That’s nine days away, and lord knows how many more goalie swaps.