Blackhawks prove yet again they have what it takes to win it all

TAMPA -- This is how the champions do it.

This is the way of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Five games into a historically close Stanley Cup finals, five one-goal games in which no team has ever had a two-goal lead, and the Tampa Bay Lightning could rightfully argue they have been the better team for at least an equal amount of the time, maybe more.

And yet it will be the Blackhawks who will return home for Game 6 on Monday night, the Stanley Cup tucked away in its distinctive rolling black and silver box somewhere in the bowels of the United Center, with a chance to see the great trophy pulled from its case before their adoring fans.

A series is not always won by the best team or rather the team that plays the best most often. No, a series like this is won by the team that is the most opportunistic, that seizes a moment, that makes fewer egregious mistakes.

On Saturday night, the Blackhawks were again such a team, nipping Tampa Bay 2-1 to win for the second game in a row, leaving them but one step short of their third Stanley Cup since 2010.

"Whether we’re one win away or 15 wins away, I think you come in with that belief and you know what your team is capable of," said captain Jonathan Toews, who earned an assist on the Blackhawks’ first goal of the game.

"If anything, you don’t want to underachieve, you want to get the most out of each other and find a way to come together as a group, give yourself a chance to be here. I think that’s what everyone in this room wants, whether these guys have been around just a couple of months since the deadline or you’ve been here for almost a decade.

"It’s a great group and we understand how unique this group and how unique this chance is."

Saturday was a perfect example of all of that.

Patrick Sharp, a player who helped build the nucleus of a team on the verge of the dynastic after coming over from the Philadelphia Flyers during the 2005-06 season, scored the first goal after Tampa netminder Ben Bishop rashly charged out after a loose puck in the Tampa zone, only to be flattened by teammate Victor Hedman, who was watching Sharp and didn’t see his goaltender approaching.

Sharp skated to the edge of the open net before scoring his first goal since May 3, which was two games into the second round.

The winner on this night -- as was the case in Game 1 of this series -- was scored by trade deadline acquisition Antoine Vermette.

The old and the new, the familiar and the not, doesn’t seem to matter to this Blackhawk team, the collective outcome always somehow greater than the sum of its parts.

It is amazing, really, to think that they are on the verge of a Cup championship, having gone five games with just one goal between Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa.

Doesn’t seem to matter, really.

“You hear [head coach] Joel [Quenneville] say all the time you don’t really care where the goals come from,” said Sharp, who has played most of the time this spring on the third line with Teuvo Teravainen and Vermette but who has played the last two games with Hossa and Toews.

"That’s an honest quote. We’re just happy the goals are going in and we’re playing a good team game. Playing with Johnny and Marian, they’re unbelievable players to play with. Getting the puck and some better opportunities. But whatever my role is on the team, I’m just going to try to do it the best I can."

Quenneville, as has so often been the case in recent years, has the Midas touch when it comes to finessing his lineup. He’s swapped Kris Versteeg and Bryan Bickell in and out of the lineup in this series but has settled on Versteeg, who helped set up the winner with a terrific rush and pass to the slot that Vermette buried.

He moved Kane and Toews together at the end of the Western Conference finals, when the Ducks looked primed to knock off the Blackhawks then separated them for the last couple of games.

He has rotated his bottom two defensemen and foisted heavy minutes on his top four defenders and is now one win away from a championship.

The Lightning have to be feeling a bit dazed as they must regroup in 48 hours to try to force a seventh game back at Amalie Arena.

They weren’t very good early in Game 5 but righted the ship over the final 40 minutes and were credited with 61 shots and/or shot attempts on the night. They forced Corey Crawford into a handful of difficult saves but after tying the game on a Valtteri Filppula goal midway through the second period could not take advantage to seize the lead.

They lost Nikita Kucherov to what looked to be a head and/or collarbone injury after he nearly scored on a Crawford giveaway early in the first period. The dangerous Kucherov played just 1:17.

Bishop, who missed Game 4 with an injury, was solid in spite of his gaffe but the goaltending is not the issue for the Lightning, who were the highest-scoring team in the NHL during the regular season but who have been limited to one goal in three of five games in this series.

Captain Steven Stamkos has one assist in five games and is now without a goal in seven straight games.

“We have to find a way,” Stamkos said Saturday night. “We have to find a way to score some goals. It starts with me. I’ve got to be better. All this stuff means nothing now. We’ve got one game. It’s going to come down to how much we want to extend our season and what we’re willing to do. This group has come too far not to leave it all on the ice next game.”

And Stamkos is right.

They are right there.

If the puck goes into the net off Kucherov instead of staying out, who knows how this game plays out.

“I never really looked at it that way, but in saying it that way, it does kind of suck,” Tampa head coach Jon Cooper quipped after the game.

“I sit and think back to Game 4, [Stamkos] has an open net, and somehow it hits [Brent] Seabrook's stick. The old cliché of the game of inches,” Cooper said. “But we've gotten some of those breaks sometimes before. You've just got to make them. We can't sit here and say, ‘Oh, poor us.’ We're the last team that's going to sit there and say that."

But here’s the thing about the Blackhawks.

Year in and year out, they’re the team that in advancing to at least the conference finals five times since 2009 has rarely had to say "What if?" or "Poor us" or "We were that close."

Those are the phrases winners almost never have to use.

And with the Stanley Cup in the United Center on Monday night would anyone bet that there’ll be any such mutterings of regret?

“We’re excited about the opportunity. It’s what we’ve worked for,” Toews said. “Again, like tonight, we don’t want to think forward to the next game and even earlier in the series, it’s kind of been the talk is not getting ahead of ourselves.

“So we’ll go into the next one with ... obviously the preparation and expectation we’re going to play our best game of the year knowing the opportunity we have. But we’ll take it one shift at a time, one period at a time. And don’t think about the end result and just keep working towards it."

In short, same old same old for the Blackhawks with the Stanley Cup at the ready.