TAMPA, Fla. -- For a while Wednesday night, it appeared as though the Chicago Blackhawks were stuck in the Western Conference finals and forgot they had switched opponents.
After playing a grueling series with the physically imposing Ducks, perhaps at times a more stationary or stagnating flow because of the hard-earned ice, the Blackhawks looked almost like a deer in the headlights in the opening period and a bit more of Game 1 on Wednesday, the blazing speed and pace of the Lightning was a complete changeup from what they had just lived for two weeks.
The Ducks aren’t slow by any means, but when you’re comparing anyone to the Lightning, well, they’re going to look slower.
The Bolts got to loose pucks, got into lanes and simply just looked faster in the opening 25 minutes or so.
"Yeah, I think we’re going to look to do better next game at the start," Conn Smythe Trophy contender Duncan Keith said after his team’s 2-1 comeback win. "Whether it was having time off or what, we had a slow start. I’m not making any excuses because that team has speed and skill and they make plays. We need to be ready from the get-go. We need to be moving our feet against this team."
And that’s just what the Blackhawks began doing, especially in a third period when they dominated territorially, moving their feet and matching Tampa Bay’s speed and skill.
The beauty of the two-goal third period and comeback victory is that the Blackhawks got to learn their lesson while still enjoying the spoils of victory, having their cake and eating it all at once.
The in-game adjustments, which included head coach Joel Quenneville splitting up Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and putting his forward lines in a blender with an impactful result, were just what the Hawks needed to do to figure out their opponents.
"First game of playoff series there’s always a little bit of a feeling-out process," Blackhawks veteran forward Patrick Sharp said. "As the series goes along, you start to know the guy you’re up against, you know that line, the team you’re up against more and more every night."
Added Keith, who logged a game-high 29 minutes, 15 seconds: "It’s a new series, it’s a different team, different adjustments that you have to make. I think we’re going to have a better start. As it goes along here, we’re going to get to know some of their tendencies a little bit more. We need to try and be better in some of those situations in what they like to do."
It was really a thing of beauty to behold, the Blackhawks out of sync in the opening period, completely rehabilitated by the third period, keeping the Lightning hemmed in their zone shift after shift.
According to war-on-ice.com tracking, the Blackhawks had a 19-7 advantage in scoring chances in the final two periods while Tampa was up 13-7 after the opening 20 minutes.
"Yeah, we got better as the game went on," Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said. "I thought our second period improved after the first. ... A lot of zone time [in the third period], threats off the rush as well."
Shift after shift in the third period, Chicago buzzed.
You could feel it coming.
Finally, Teuvo Teravainen's shot found its way by a screened Ben Bishop at 13:28. About time the Hawks provided traffic in front of the Tampa goalie. Less than two minutes later, it was Vermette taking advantage of a Teravainen strip of J.T. Brown and the former Arizona Coyotes center beat Bishop with a wrist shot from the slot.
Blackhawks went up 2-1, and that’s all she wrote.
"I think that was a great illustration on that goal with the way we try to play, try to establish our speed and moving our feet, especially in their end," Vermette said.
The stunned Lightning lost their first game all playoffs after opening the scoring (9-1).
"Maybe we took the foot off the gas a little bit, sat back a little bit, gave them time and space with the puck," Lightning star blue-liner Victor Hedman said. "It's a really good team on the other side and they tied it up. Then we iced the puck and got stuck in our own end a little bit, you know it's a tough one. But we've been in this situation before, losing the first game. We just have to rebound."
The key is not only did the Lightning foolishly try to protect a one-goal lead against the kind of team for which one goal means nothing, but also that the Blackhawks, despite their shortcomings in the first half of the game, at least kept the score close while finding their sea legs.
“I think it was a great example of a team effort as far as the defensive effort, maintaining the close game throughout two and a half periods and some huge offensive contributions from some guys that have been scoring big goals, but maybe don’t get the recognition they deserve for what they’ve meant to this team offensively," Toews said. "Power play didn’t get it done for us tonight, so someone had to come through."
Indeed, getting two huge goals from supporting cast members is the difference in what makes a championship team.
"I think every year our team has had success in the playoffs, depth has been a key to our success," Sharp said. "Whether it’s four lines, six or eight D, two goalies, we’ve got depth in our lineup and it seems like the so-called hero can come from anybody at anytime. There’s a belief in our room that we can pull it out despite whatever situation we’re in, and that was the case tonight."
As the Ducks found out the hard way in the conference finals, putting away the Blackhawks is no easy feat.
Just another night at the office for a Chicago team that truly feels a game is never out of reach.
"I don’t know if 'Come to expect it' is the right way to put it but we certainly believe in ourselves in our locker-room,” Sharp said. "We’re never out of any game despite the score or how it looks out there."