The Tampa Bay Lightning proved that again during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals Wednesday, keeping the Blackhawks’ line of Toews, Kane and Brandon Saad in check. The line had accounted for four Blackhawks goals over the final two games of the Western Conference finals, but was held without a goal and limited to six shots on net on Wednesday.
The Lightning primarily used forwards Cedric Paquette, Ryan Callahan, Alex Killorn and J.T. Brown and defensemen Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman against the line. Callahan played eight-plus minutes against Kane and Toews and Hedman and Stralman each played 11-plus minutes against them.
“Our thinking was if we can neutralize that line with Ceddy, Cally and whether it be Brown or Killorn, whoever is out there, that's going to give our other guys hopefully a little bit better chance to score,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said on Thursday. “Those guys are great players. To keep them off the score sheet the way they did... It was something we needed.”
The Blackhawks’ top line struggled to gain and keep possession and also find interior shots when it did have the puck. The Lightning were able to keep the trio mostly on the outside.
One of Kane’s best opportunities was when he stickhandled his way into the slot to find some space and nearly connected with Toews at the net. Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop snatched the puck just before it reached Toews.
“They're great skating D men,” Toews said. “They're offensive. They're smart defensively. Hedman is a big guy, but he's mobile as well. I think we had some shifts where we had puck possession. We just got to find ways to get inside, get shots, just get traffic in front of the goaltender. We had some puck possessions in some moments, but it didn't really amount to a whole lot the way we wanted it to.”
The Saad-Toews-Kane line had the Blackhawks’ worst possession numbers in the game. Kane and Toews were each a minus-7 Corsi and Saad was a minus-5. Toews was held to one shot on goal after compiling nine shots in his previous three games.
Callahan was proud of his team’s effort against the line, but knew the task wasn’t complete.
“Listen, they're a very talented group, that line,” Callahan said. “They're going to get their chances. They're going to get opportunities. You got to try the best you can to limit that, limit their time and space, as hard as it is. I thought we were successful against that line when we started to get pucks deep. We tried to get the puck in their zone more, control some offensive zone time. You want those guys to defend, not be in your offensive zone. I thought we did a good job of that. That job's going to get harder as the series goes on.”
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville often has opted to keep Kane and Toews apart the past few seasons to create more balance throughout the lineup. Quenneville then has placed them together at times when the Blackhawks are desperate for goals, and the move has normally paid off.
After seeing how the Lightning were able to hold off Kane and Toews in Game 1, Quenneville left open the possibility of separating them again. He did during a few shifts on Wednesday.
“A couple times I had Kaner back with [Brad Richards] and [Kris Versteeg],” Quenneville said on Thursday. “Steeger gives you that versatility as well. [Marian] Hossa can go back with Johnny. We'll see how that plays out. They'll still visit each other over the course of the game with some shifts.”
Toews was looking forward to getting out on the ice again Saturday and creating more in Game 2.
“Coming off that third period last night, I think we'll be ready to jump in Saturday night and create and try and make some of their top players play in their own end,” Toews said.