By Shane Nicholson
The question still lingers after Saturday’s morning skate: who will the Blackhawks be facing in the net when the puck drops on tonight’s Game 5?
“It’s been a long season,” said Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, who was scratched with an undisclosed lower body injury just an hour before Wednesday’s Game 4 loss to Chicago. “You got this far, and you don’t want to be holding back the team, I guess to say. It’s an extremely tough decision to make.”
Bishop skated for 15 minutes this morning, facing shots for about 10 of those as he and trainers assessed his lateral mobility. But whether it will be him or 20-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy backstopping the Tampa Bay defense is yet to be seen.
“I hope I have a decision to make between him and Andrei,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “That would be great.”
Who ends up going for Tampa Bay won’t do much to affect the Blackhawks’ preparation. Coach Joel Quenneville used a revolving series of lines in Game 4 which worked just well enough for Chicago to claim a 2-1 win at home.
Chicago is 6-5 on the road this playoffs including a Game 7 Western Conference Finals win in Anaheim.
Tonight they’re back on the ice in Tampa’s Amalie Arena looking to take a 3-2 advantage and setting up a shot for the Hawks to clinch a Stanley Cup at home Monday for the first time since 1938.
“I think for either team to win, it comes down to your best players being at their best and making the difference,” said captain Jonathan Toews. “So myself as an individual, I expect that out of myself.”
Toews and winger Patrick Kane are still atop the Hawks’ scoring charts this playoffs but both have played a relatively quiet first four games.
But Toews says they can still flip the switch and give their team the edge tonight.
“I’m not the only one in that room that thinks that way, or thinks as an individual or a player, you need to raise your game to make a difference,” he said. “We all think that way. I think that’s a huge reason why we’ve made it this far.”
Those individual moments have been the difference so far in a Stanley Cup Finals that has since its first four games decided by a single goal, the first time that’s happened since the Montreal Canadiens swept the St. Louis Blues in 1968.
Toews was able to provide the spark for the Hawks in Game 4, scoring his first goal of the series before Brandon Saad buried the winner in the 3rd period.
Quenneville says that the Hawks’ captain is a big reason why his team never seems to be out of it no matter the score.
“Well, I don’t forecast advantages. I know we’re fortunate to have him,” Quenneville said. “He’s a special player. He’s a great leader. He’s got tremendous character.”
And character is the buzzword in a Hawks camp that has battled injuries in its defensive ranks throughout this series.
Johnny Oduya skated through Game 4 fighting a lingering upper body injury, and Brent Seabrook was feeling the effects of the flu as he finally showed signs of the long minutes he’s racked up in these playoffs.
But Duncan Keith, tipped as a Conn Smythe favorite should Chicago see their way through to a third Cup in six years, says his teammates have what it takes to see out the series.
“You don’t get this far without having that character, and I think this is where it has to come out as much as possible.”
And his partners on the blue line agree. “Personally, I could have played (Thursday),” said Niklas Hjalmarsson. “I could have skipped these two days in between games, but we’re not making the schedule here. It’s just at the most three games left here to do something great, and it’s pretty easy to get motivated and forget about that stuff.”
Captain Toews echoes that sentiment, saying that the Hawks will keep fighting through what’s been a back-and-forth series so far.
“We just know you’ve got to keep working, keep finding ways to create chances, and eventually believe that a bounce is going to go your way.”
And Quenneville says the Blackhawks’ number-19 is just the guy to lead the way.
“We always talk about the bigger the setting, the bigger the stage, he rises to that challenge. Our team rises to big games and big settings as well.”
Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals is tonight at 7 p.m. on NBC.