The Stanley Cup will be in the house Monday at the United Center, and the Chicago Blackhawks will have a chance to make the hallowed trophy feel at home there for a while.
Center Antoine Vermette, a late-season acquisition who was a healthy scratch early in the Western Conference final, converted a rebound two minutes into the third period Saturday and Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford held off a furious late push by the Tampa Bay Lightning as the Blackhawks clawed out a 2-1 victory at Amalie Arena. With a 3-2 series lead they're in position to win the Cup on Monday for the third time in six seasons.
“It's great. We're excited about the opportunity,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “It's what we've worked for.”
In the fifth consecutive Cup Final game decided by one goal, the Blackhawks' defense was formidable, led by the tireless Niklas Hjalmarsson and his game-high seven blocks. And their support players came through again, with Vermette recording the winning goal for the second time in the Final and third time in this playoff run.
“Whether we're one win away or 15 wins away, you come in with that belief and you know what your team is capable of,” Toews said. “If anything, you don't want to underachieve. You want to get the most out of each other and find a way to come together as a group and give yourself a chance to be here. I think that's what everyone in this room wants.”
The Blackhawks can win the Cup at home for the first time since 1938, when they completed a best-of-five series against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the old Chicago Stadium. They won at Detroit in 1961, at Philadelphia in 2010 and at Boston in 2013. A seventh game, if necessary, would be played Wednesday in Tampa.
This is when their experience will come into play, where the core group of what is the closest thing to a dynasty the NHL has seen in the salary-cap era must take charge. The Lightning came back from a 3-2 deficit in the first round, against Detroit, and Coach Jon Cooper remains confident that his team can do that again.
“People can't sit here and say, ‘Well, the inexperienced Lightning.' I think we're the gamer Lightning,” he said. “These guys have gamed out these playoffs, and I expect nothing less in Game 6 in Chicago.”
Less than a minute after Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov suffered an undisclosed injury when he tripped over Crawford and collided with the post in the first period, Chicago capitalized on a misplay by Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop. The puck had been dumped into Tampa Bay's zone and defenseman Victor Hedman was preparing to play it, but Bishop came out of his net and to the left faceoff circle, where he collided with Hedman. Both went down, leaving an empty net for Patrick Sharp to score at 6:11, his first goal in 14 games.
Bishop, who missed Game 4 because of an undisclosed injury, was slow to get up but stayed in the game. Bishop made 27 saves, to 30 by Crawford.
“I was just trying to force the play, skate as fast as I can up the ice and apply some pressure,” Sharp said.
Tampa Bay pulled even at 10:53 of the second period, on a fine setup from Jason Garrison to Valtteri Filppula, who scored from a tough angle. But Vermette was a difference-maker again and Crawford stopped 15 shots in the third period to send the Blackhawks back home with a chance to claim the Cup Monday.
It's so close they can taste it, but they're experienced enough not to start counting Champagne bubbles yet.
“You go through the ups and downs every playoff run. It didn't start off the way I wanted but I was able to stay with it,” said Crawford, who was benched for three games in the first round against Nashville. “It's been great up to this point. With a chance to go back to our building, I think everyone's pretty excited about it. But we can't get ahead of ourselves. There's a lot of work to do here and it's going to be an even harder battle.”