<
>

Toews responds in the clutch; Stamkos left lamenting bad breaks

CHICAGO -- For the past two days, with his team facing a 2-1 deficit in the Stanley Cup finals, Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews patiently answered questions about why his Blackhawks are a special breed, how they have developed an innate ability to find a way at the most crucial points of the season.

But as eloquent as the man known as Captain Serious might have been, it would have rung a little hollow had the Blackhawks not responded with a win in Game 4.

And it would have rung a little hollow if Toews himself hadn’t stepped on the ice, delivered a virtuoso performance and dragged the team to such a victory.

But -- and you know how this storyline plays out already, don’t you, having seen it time and again in recent years -- that’s exactly what happened as the Blackhawks hung on for a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night to even this finals series at two wins apiece. Game 5 is Saturday in Tampa, Florida.

It wasn’t a dominating performance by the Blackhawks by any stretch of the imagination.

They went 0-for-3 on the power play and managed to launch just 19 shots on goal.

Facing rookie goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was replacing the injured Ben Bishop, the Blackhawks did not get off to the start they wanted. In fact, the Lightning once again delivered a textbook start in spite of playing in the unfriendly confines of the United Center.

They forced the Blackhawks into turnovers and had a couple of good chances while keeping the Blackhawks from registering their first shot until the 8 minutes, 17 seconds showed in the first period.

And had the Lightning been able to capitalize on their chances and score first, as they had in the first three games of the series, maybe this one swings another way.

But they didn’t.

Instead, Toews tracked down a bouncing puck after a Patrick Sharp shot and deposited it behind Vasilevskiy at the 6:40 mark of the second period to give the Blackhawks the lead.

Although the Lightning tied it little more than five minutes later, the Blackhawks would get the winner from Brandon Saad early in the third period, a victory that included a wild final two minutes when the Lightning swarmed the Blackhawks' goal.

At one point in that final stretch, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos had the puck settle on his blade in front of the Chicago net, but his shot was swallowed up by Corey Crawford.

“Yeah. I thought it was going in,” Stamkos said. “We had some other great looks that were going to go in, too. I mean, couple of times guys almost had their hands in the air. That’s the way it goes.

“You can’t ask for a more eventful minute and a half in a six-on-five situation. That’s exactly what we want. Just didn’t go in. It’s a little frustrating when you have that many chances, but nothing you can do about it now."

Heading into this game, the three biggest stars in the series -- Toews, Stamkos and Patrick Kane -- had combined for one assist, that by Toews in a Game 2 loss.

In Game 4, a game the Blackhawks desperately needed to win to avoid falling behind 3-1 in the series, Toews scored the crucial first goal and Kane drew an assist on Saad’s winner.

Stamkos earned a secondary assist on the tying goal by Alex Killorn, but he has now gone six straight games without a goal in these playoffs.

This isn’t about whether Stamkos played well. He did. He was physical. He had some chances.

But in a series that has now featured four straight one-goal games (the first time it has happened since 1968) and on a night when he registered just two shots on goal and the Lightning power play -- on which he plays an important role -- was 0-for-4, well, let’s just say this was a moment that didn’t just get away from the Lightning. It got away from Stamkos, too.

“You’re getting the chances,” Stamkos said. “They’re bound to go in. We’ve been down this road before. Got to get some more looks, got to get some more shots, some more touches. We’ll make some adjustments and, as a team, we want to score more than one goal.”

At one point during his postgame scrum, Stamkos lamented that they had “squandered” this game.

If the actual game itself wasn’t up to the rollicking standards of Games 2 and 3 (at least until into the third period), the drama and the interlocking storylines merely added to the widely held belief that we are watching a classic unfold night by night.

Coming into this game, I hypothesized that even though the two teams’ top players might not have had a defining moment, they would, and my belief is that in the end those players will ultimately have a significant hand in which team stands alone at the end, whether it’s in six or seven games.

On Wednesday night, it was the familiar form of Toews who helped guide -- or will drag -- his team to a victory.

“Again, he’s just one of those players that’s just an all-around guy, I think that’s just his thing and he gets it done,” said Blackhawks forward Andrew Desjardins, who played against Toews for a number of years as a member of the San Jose Sharks.

The Toews goal broke a personal four-game goalless drought for the Chicago captain.

With head coach Joel Quenneville mixing up his top three lines, moving Sharp to the wing with Marian Hossa on the top line with Toews, the group responded by combining for eight of the team’s 19 shots on goal.

“I think we've definitely been talking, everyone has been talking, about our team starting the game with the lead,” Toews said. “I think we've seen in this series, the brief times we've had the lead, they bounce back really hard. We always have to kind of survive an onslaught. I think tonight we did a better job of responding after we scored goals, especially in the third period.”

And so the series shifts to Tampa on Saturday for the first of what is now a best-of-three for the Stanley Cup.

By scoring and helping secure a win, Toews (and to a lesser degree Kane) will avoid two days of being asked about their lack of production.

Even though he had an assist, it’s fair to assume those questions will continue to nibble at Stamkos over the next 48 hours.

That’s life on the brink of a championship. That’s life when you’re one of the best players on the planet but are still looking for your first championship, your first opportunity to lead a team to glory.

Tampa head coach Jon Cooper admitted he was a bit shocked none of the final flurry of shots managed to beat Crawford.

“I’m sure there were 22,000 nervous people in the stands when we were zipping it around there,” Cooper said.

But he insisted he’s not worried that frustration might be creeping into Stamkos’ game.

“Had the best seat in the house to watch him play for two years,” Cooper said. “You don’t keep him down forever. He’s gone through this before. He went through this a little bit in the Detroit series then bounced back for us.”

It’s true, of course.

Stamkos went the first eight games of the playoffs without a goal and the Lightning found a way.

Now they need to find a way to win two more games.

Maybe they win those games without Stamkos chipping in in a meaningful way. I don’t think so.

At the same time, would it surprise anyone if he didn’t deliver the goods, just as his counterpart and reverse number, Toews, did Wednesday night?

“The old clich√©, if you’d have given us a best-two-out-of-three at home at the beginning of the year to win the Stanley Cup, I think any team in their right mind would take that opportunity,” Stamkos said. “We’re disappointed about the squandered chance tonight. Again, can’t reiterate the fact that I thought we deserved better. We just got to find a way to score more than one goal."

And, more to the point, can he find a way to be the guy that scores that goal?