TAMPA, Fla. — The Chicago Blackhawks had barely filed up the tunnel to the visitors’ dressing room after another narrow victory in the Stanley Cup Final when their thoughts turned to home.
With another tenacious road victory in this impossibly close series, the Blackhawks realized they had just earned an opportunity to raise that silver trophy in front of their Chicago faithful on June 15.
“We try not to think too far ahead,” Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “But obviously you’re just human.”
Antoine Vermette scored the tie-breaking goal early in the third period, and the Blackhawks moved to the brink of their third NHL championship in six years with a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5 on June 14.
Corey Crawford made 31 saves and Patrick Sharp scored an early goal into an accidentally unguarded net for the Blackhawks, who took a 3-2 series lead by surviving another night teetering on the smallest margins and mistakes.
Ben Bishop stopped 27 shots after missing Game 4 with an undisclosed injury, but the goalie’s ill-advised venture outside the crease led to Sharp’s goal.
The first five games all have been decided by one goal for just the second time in Stanley Cup Final history, and the first time in 64 years.
“We’re going to carry this momentum,” Crawford said. “We’re pretty excited about this right now, and (we want to) carry this over to the next game. We don’t want to get ahead of us, but it’s going to be real exciting going home.”
Game 6 is June 16 in Chicago, and seven remaining members of the Blackhawks’ two-time champion core will have the chance to skate the Stanley Cup around the United Center for the first time. They won their other two Cups on the road. Chicago as a franchise hasn’t won a Cup on home ice since April 1938.
“Never been in this spot,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. “I’m sure it’ll be crazy in town over the next two days. I’m sure the buzz will be off the charts. Looking forward to it.”
The Lightning must win two straight to claim the second Stanley Cup title in franchise history, and they don’t appear to be intimidated by the task despite another frustrating night against Chicago’s increasingly intense defense.
Valtteri Filppula scored for the Lightning, who have scored just two goals while losing two straight games for only the second time in their 25-game postseason.
“I feel bad for them, in the sense that I think they’ve deserved a little bit better than what we’re sitting right now,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said of his players.
“But the one thing we are, we’re still alive. We’re not out. This isn’t the press conference to say we’re done. I don’t know. I think there’s happy days ahead for us. We’ve just got to push through this.”
Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos’ goal drought reached seven games, while playoff scoring leader Tyler Johnson has one goal in nine games. The Lightning also lost second-leading scorer Nikita Kucherov to a first-period injury when he crashed into the Chicago net.
“We have to find a way to score some goals,” Stamkos said. “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.”
Game 5 was another chapter in what’s shaping up as the tightest Final ever played. Neither team has even held a two-goal lead through five games, staying tied or one goal apart for all 300 minutes. Only the 1951 Final between Toronto and Montreal also started with five one-goal results.
Chicago and Tampa Bay started the third period in a tie for the third straight game, but Vermette cashed in on a loose puck in the slot just two minutes in.
Bishop kicked the puck straight onto Vermette’s tape after stopping a rush by Kris Versteeg. Vermette, the veteran forward acquired from Arizona near the trade deadline, also scored the third-period tiebreaker at Amelie Arena in the series opener 10 days ago.
“This is a good group here, and a special team,” Vermette said. “I’m glad I’m here.”
While the Lightning didn’t know their goalie’s identity until earlier in the day, Crawford delivered another outstanding night in Chicago’s crease right when he was most needed.
He capped the performance with 16 saves in the third period, performing flawlessly down the stretch just as he did in the previous game.
Bishop decided to play after participating in the morning skate, and the 53-game winner appeared to be moving more fluidly than he did in Game 3.
He still gave a goal to the Blackhawks in the first period when roamed almost halfway to the blue line to play a puck and collided with star defenseman Victor Hedman.
Sharp ended his 13-game goal drought by skating around the pair and chipping in the open-net gift in front of Tampa Bay’s stunned fans.
The Blackhawks had several other golden scoring chances before Filppula’s goal, including Teuvo Teravainen missing the net on a clean breakaway.
The Lightning evened it when Jason Garrison made a wicked cross-ice pass through Chicago’s defense to the Finnish veteran, who ended his six-game goal drought.
The final Saturday night game of the NHL season got off to an ugly start for the Lightning when Kucherov then nearly scored on the play on which he was injured.
Crawford inexplicably passed the puck right at Kucherov, but the Russian forward charged at it and lost his feet when Crawford dived back to his crease.
Kucherov hit the post hard with his right shoulder or head, skating off hunched over and going straight to Tampa Bay’s dressing room.
Rookie Jonathan Drouin took Kucherov’s spot on Tampa Bay’s vaunted “Triplets” line with Johnson and Ondrej Palat.
(GREG BEACHAM, AP Hockey Writer)