NHL: Blackhawks dreaming of another Stanley Cup

TAMPA, Fla. -- In the inexorable wait until they dropped the puck Saturday night at Amalie Arena, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews confessed to being just like any other Chicago hockey fan.

TAMPA, Fla. - In the inexorable wait until they dropped the puck Saturday night at Amalie Arena, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews confessed to being just like any other Chicago hockey fan.
Pondering another parade that ends in Grant Park. Wondering what Madison Street might look like during late-night gridlock caused by giddiness. Thinking big the way Hawks players think but seldom voice.
“There are moments where you let yourself daydream,” Toews admitted. “All of a sudden, you catch yourself getting ahead of yourself. You need to snap back to right here, right now.”
Right now, after a dramatic 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, the city can contemplate celebrating something that hasn’t happened in 77 years: a Stanley Cup title captured on home ice. Call in the cavalry, Mayor Emanuel. The Hawks put themselves in position to hoist the silver chalice and raise civic pride as early as tonight at the United Center with the kind of clutch effort that defines their core.
Antoine Vermette authored another memorable playoff moment when he ended a rush started by the hustling Kris Versteeg by knocking a rebound past Lightning goalie Ben Bishop for the game-winner with 18 minutes left. That goal held up because of the Hawks’ strongest defensive effort of the postseason, spearheaded by Niklas Hjalmarsson, who finished with seven blocked shots and twice as many bruises. Goalie Corey Crawford returned the favor, weathering another late Lightning storm the way he has so many times in this series.
This was the difference between a team that wants to win games like these and one that knows it can. This was Experience 2, Potential 1. This was Vermette again making general manager Stan Bowman look smart for acquiring him at the trade deadline. Since being a healthy scratch in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, the French accent on the Hawks cannot be mistaken.
“He has gotten better every game,” Quenneville said. “Great game tonight.”
If Vermette’s goal involved heart and hustle, the Hawks’ first score at the 6:11 mark of the first period was all puck luck. If any Hawks player deserved to see a wide-open net, it was Patrick Sharp, who apologized for costly back-to-back penalties his last time in this building. Sharp had gone 13 games - and 40 days - without scoring a goal, frustration no doubt exacerbated by pregame questions about his uncertain future. Like a pro’s pro, Sharp downplayed it, restating his simple goal of shooting it at the net. Few Sharp goals have looked any simpler. The net was empty, just like Bishop’s head.
For reasons escaping hockey purists, Bishop skated near the right faceoff dot, where he hammered his own defenseman, Victor Hedman. Bishop stands 6-foot-7 and 215 pounds while Hedman goes 6-6, 229, so this was like a tight end colliding with an outside linebacker. On the Lightning injury report, this should go down as a brain spasm. Perhaps Bishop felt emboldened watching Crawford get away with a similar gaffe earlier.
Crawford hesitated with the puck, then turned it over before recovering quickly enough to stop Nikita Kucherov’s shot. Kucherov rammed into the post, injuring himself badly enough to remove a major threat for the rest of the game. The missed chance prevented the Lightning from negating the Hawks’ best start in the series. As bad as Crawford’s goof was, Bishop’s still was worse.
Suspense surrounded Bishop’s availability. Typically coy, Lightning coach Jon Cooper kept everyone guessing. Rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy responded well in a Game 4 loss, so the Lightning hardly feared a drop-off. The Blackhawks didn’t care - or know. When No. 30 led the Lightning out of the tunnel, it ended speculation: Cooper’s move was having Bishop replace the rookie.
The chess game included Quenneville shaking up the lines again, though not drastically. He shifted Andrew Shaw back to the fourth line, one of the Hawks’ most consistent. Teuvo Teravainen returned to the third line, along with Vermette and Versteeg. Look what happened: Teravainen flew around aggressively and Vermette and Versteeg combined for the key goal in a game that resembled the rest in the NHL’s closest Cup finals since 1968.
“That line was very dangerous,” Quenneville said.
It had to be. The Lightning made Vermette’s heroics necessary with a nifty goal in a furious second period. The pace intensified as the Lightning showed the urgency of team realizing this could be its last home game. For one frenetic 8:22 stretch, no whistles blew. Building energy, the Lightning struck with 9:07 left when Jason Garrison made a seam pass past Duncan Keith to Valtteri Filppula, who knocked it home.
Keith has spent the postseason playing at a high enough level to spark Hall of Fame chatter, yet this was the rare instance he erred. The goal revived fans in the crowd of 19,204, most of them waving blue towels that read “BELIEVE.”
Surely, the Bolts still do. And as this game reminded everybody, Toews and the Hawks never stopped believing, which is their greatest strength.

David Haugh is a sports columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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