Both Lightning, Blackhawks feel Stanley Cup within their grasp
BRANDON, Fla. -- This drag race of a Stanley Cup Final stands tied at two games apiece, but with a little different puck luck either way, the Tampa Bay Lightning or Chicago Blackhawks could hold a commanding lead.
The Lightning could have two more games on home ice, but they've executed best in these Stanley Cup playoffs when on the road.
The Blackhawks have been a dominant home team in the postseason, but they'll see the United Center's ice just once more with two victories necessary to claim their third Stanley Cup in six years.
Does it all sound garbled?
Does it all sound like a situation that's as settled as a final-minute scrum near the net?
Welcome to the NHL's glorious grand finale, where tight third periods and one-goal outcomes have produced fireworks before each curtain call. With the Lightning facing another split situation after four games for the third series in this postseason, and with that possible two games at Amalie Arena, they feel good about where they stand.
Still, best of luck predicting who will emerge from this best-of-three thrill ride ahead.
"They've had some good chances that haven't gone in, and we've had some chances that haven't gone in," Lightning center Tyler Johnson said Friday. "We like the way we're playing right now. At the same time, Chicago is a great team. So you know they're going to score goals. You know they're going to get wins. So it's not going to be easy."
The finish likely won't be kind on fans' health in both Chicago and Tampa Bay. The first four games ended with these scores: 2-1, 4-3, 3-2 and 2-1. It's easy to make the argument that the Lightning should be ahead in the series 3-1 without that third-period collapse in Game 1. But it's also simple to make the same case for the Blackhawks, who missed so many open-net looks in Game 3.
Why should anything but tight, exciting and captivating hockey be expected for Game 5 on Saturday and beyond?
Why should anything but fun, agonizing and breath-taking sights be anticipated before this June frenzy gives way to the NHL's annual summer hibernation?
"We're confident in our group, I think," Lightning center Cedric Paquette said. "We've played well for all four games. I think we could be up right now. But it's 2-2, and we're looking forward to a big game tomorrow."
The series' biggest game so far will be played at a site where Tampa Bay has hiccupped of late. After going an NHL-best 32-8-1 at Amalie Arena in the regular season, the Lightning have posted a mediocre 6-6 mark there in the postseason. Still, the Blackhawks won't knock anyone over with their 6-5 road record in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And how about this for more confusion? The Lightning have posted mixed results in Game 5 matchups when the series is tied at two. In the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, they lost to the Detroit Red Wings 4-0, but Tampa Bay went on to win Games 6 and 7 by a combined score of 7-2. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Lightning beat the New York Rangers 2-0, and Tampa Bay went on to split the remaining two games to advance.
In the Blackhawks' lone experience in a 2-2 situation in this postseason, they lost to the Anaheim Ducks 5-4 in overtime during the Western Conference finals. But they went on to win Games 6 and 7 by a combined score of 10-5.
Prepare for all possibilities.
Thrilling, captivating, wild. All those words are fitting for life in this series after four games. All should work for the next two or three as well.
"The fact that nobody's had a two-goal lead after four games speaks volumes about what we're talking about here," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "Hey, it's fast, it's quick, it can be unpredictable. It's two good hockey teams going at it. I think whether it's going to be a great save or a great play, you know, a fluky goal, I know both teams leave it out there. I know our team loves a challenge, and we expect to get better as we go along here."
What's not to enjoy? This is a tale of love at first sight.
"You got to get caught up in the moment," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "You have to embrace where we are. It's the middle of June and we're still playing hockey. The Stanley Cup is up for grabs in the best two-out-of-three. I don't think we should be afraid of that. I don't think we should walk around being tense and looking at the magnitude of where we are, being afraid of the moment."
So much remains unsettled, and the results to come will shape legacies and memories, leaving one side reason to celebrate and the other to sulk about a rare opportunity missed.
Prepare for a mesmerizing finish to a marvelous series, one worthy of the sweat and blood required to reach this doorstep of history.