Antoine Vermette (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The Chicago Blackhawks put their experience, poise and quick-strike ability on full display in Game 1, waiting out the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that has bent, but hasn't broken often in these playoffs. Well, it broke in Game 1 and will have to gather up the pieces before Saturday.
TAMPA – Somewhere on Wednesday night, John Tortorella was probably sitting in his barcalounger yelling at his television. “Safe is Death! Safe is Death!” is what he would have been screaming, we’re willing to venture. Perhaps a few x-rated words were mixed in.
Eleven years ago, Tortorella led the Tampa Bay Lightning to its first Stanley Cup using that mantra. It was in the midst of the dreadfulness of the Dead Puck Era™ his team played with speed and elan and took offensive chances. And it was rewarded. But in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, the Lightning committed the grievous offense of taking a 1-0 lead and thinking it could hold it against an ultra-talented and experienced Chicago Blackhawks team by playing a conservative style that allowed the Blackhawks zone entries and puck possession, and, ultimately two goals.
Now the Lightning has two days to either stew about an enormous opportunity lost or learn from its mistakes and make adjustments for Game 2. We’re betting it’ll go with the latter. The Lightning has romped through these playoffs with a rather respectful F-you attitude toward its opponents. And it has beaten them all. But it’s clear the Lightning showed the Blackhawks far too much respect after outplaying them for much of the first two periods.
Another lesson learned for the Lightning. Another lesson doled out by the Blackhawks.
“Obviously we knew it was only 1-0 and we’ve come back against teams in the past being down a lot more than 1-0,” said Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith. “At the same time, they’ve got a great team and it’s going to be a tough series. We’re excited about getting that first win in their building, but I think we know at the same time we can try and be better.”
That is not good news for the Lightning. Tampa held Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to two shot attempts each and spent two periods - by contrast, Steven Stamkos had twice as many shot attempts himself in the game - frustrating the Hawks by getting in all the shooting lanes and playing the perfect game. The only problem is the Hawks were not getting frustrated. They knew going into this series that they were going to get more production from their bottom six forwards than Tampa was going to get from its third- and fourth-liners and that was the difference, with Teuvo Teravainen and Antoine Vermette providing the two goals.
The Lightning game plan worked to perfection until it collapsed upon itself. The Lightning went into the game with the idea of pressuring both the Blackhawks forwards and defensemen and taking away their time and space. The Lightning has had success with that very tactic, particularly in crucial games.
“It was very similar to how we played the Rangers the other night (in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final),” Cooper said, “except we were playing down ice, but tonight in the third period we played almost a half-ice game and against a team like Chicago you can’t let a team keep coming at you like we did.”
Game 1 of 2015 was a little reminiscent in some ways to Game 1 of the final a year ago. In that game, the Rangers threw everything they had at the Los Angeles Kings and still lost the game, which instantly placed a seed of doubt in the Rangers that couldn’t be shaken. In the past couple of years, an interesting trend has developed. Whether it’s over the course of the entire regular season or even one game, the Eastern Conference teams have to be relentless from start to finish in order to be successful. The Western teams, as evidenced by both the Blackhawks and the Kings, seem to be able to let their foot off the gas pedal for extended periods and then crush teams with an abbreviated flurry of brilliance.
Vermette, who scored the game winner, talked about how that goal seemed to be indicative of what the Blackhawks can accomplish when they move their feet, force turnovers and keep possession of the puck. Only when they did that and started getting some traffic in front of Ben Bishop did they begin to take over the game.
If the Lightning is looking for silver linings, it will note that it rendered the Blackhawks best players offensively impotent. And that is something to hang one’s hat upon, but can it last?
“If I pull up the scoresheet, you don’t see Kane or Toews or any of those guys on it,” Cooper said. “Ceddy (Cedric Paquette), Cally (Ryan Callahan), Killer (Alex Killorn) or (J.T.) Brown on them, I thought they did a heck of a job. You can’t ask for much more than that. They’re world-class players. You know you can’t keep them down forever. But if we can have a defensive effort like that, it’s really going to help our chances.”
It also time for the stars to show up in this series, on both sides.
GAME 1 THREE STARS
1. Teuvo Teravainen (Chicago): Scored a huge goal that tied the game, then forced the turnover that led to Vermette’s game-winner.
3. Alex Killorn (Tampa Bay): Scored a goal and was part of the group that shut down Chicago’s best players.