Featured image courtesy of David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
In the days leading up to game one between two high-powered offenses, practically everyone was anticipating what would surely be a proverbial track meet. Few things could have been further from the truth in what turned out to be quite the tight-checking affair. And as the final horn sounded, while the Blackhawks celebrated with their goalie, the Lightning could only stare up at the scoreboard in disbelief. It did not seem like Chicago had won so much as the Lightning had let their home-ice advantage slip through their fingers, and that wizened pedigree had won out over youthful naivete.
It was not a game bereft of north-south hockey (and indeed there was at least one breakaway, which turned out to be a major factor in the game), but for the most part, both teams relied more on defensive responsibilities. Both squads have forwards with speed to spare and defensemen with a proclivity to pinch, but the offensive opportunities were few and far between.
Alex Killorn came painfully close early with a swipe at a puck that wound up skittering inches to the left of the goal. Moments later he would find redemption with one of the nicest goals of the post-season. From what seemed like an impossible angle, Killorn backhanded a deflection off of a hope shot-pass from Stralman to open the scoring at 4:31.
The next 35 minutes took on the feel of a chess match. For the remainder of the first period and all of the second period, both teams were loathe to give up an inch of real estate, and the vast majority of shots came from the outside. Tampa kept the pressure up, but the Blackhawks matched them every step of the way. Duncan Keith led the way and ended up with 29:15 of ice time — almost half the game.
In a third period that will live in infamy in the memories of Tampa Bay fans, the Lightning stopped pressuring and went into a shell. Playing it safe is one thing. The Lightning decided to go into a prevent defense, and it proved to be their downfall. After generating 18 shots through two periods, Lightning managed only 5 shots in the third. One of them, ironically, was a clear cut breakaway by Ryan Callahan, which was denied by Crawford. This would prove to be a turning point, as less than two minutes later, Teuvo Teravainen scored with traffic in front by Kruger to knot the game.
From there on out, the Blackhawks looked shot out of a cannon, and Tampa had no answer. In the span of another two minutes, Chicago had snared the lead with a rocket shot from mid season acquisition Vermette off a pinpoint feed from Teravainen. Whatever desperation hockey Tampa could muster after that was middling at best. They had made the venial sin of letting off the gas, and it had opened the door for Chicago to steal the game. As Tampa coach Jon Cooper put it, they went into a “half-court game”, and Chicago took advantage.
Historically, game one winners have won 77% of Stanley Cup Finals. Chicago is in the driver’s seat as they were able to do it on the road. Taking both games at Amelie Arena may give them an insurmountable lead. Lightning will have to learn from this tough lesson about playing aggressive for 60 minutes if they want to have any chance in Game Two. Interestingly, their cup winning team in 2004 hit a similar snag in the Conference Finals vs the Flyers, where they played to protect a lead in Game 6 only to have it bite them, and then won Game 7 by being sure to put the Flyers away. Afterwards, they pointed to the mantra of then captain Dave Andreychuk: “Safe is Death”. That might be a good one for them to dust off for Game Two.