“To me, this series has been expect the unexpected.”
That was Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper on Saturday night, after his team had dropped a 2-1 decision on home ice in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final. He was offering the observation in response to a question about whether back-to-back 2-1 final scores meant that the series had settled into a defensive struggle, but it was probably a comforting message to deliver in the bigger picture right now. That’s because today, with the Blackhawks leading the series 3-2 and holding home ice for Monday’s Game 6, the expectation is that Chicago is about to win the Stanley Cup.
Tonight marks the first time in the modern era that the Blackhawks will have a chance to skate the Cup on home ice. Given their well-documented excess of talent, experience, and, yes, resiliency, blowing it now to a Lightning team that’s young and hurting would seem to go against the script.
And that’s where the good news for Tampa Bay kicks in, because so far this matchup hasn’t much gone according to plan. Patrick Kane and Steven Stamkos can’t score, but Cedric Paquette and Antoine Vermette can. The series has been the closest we’ve ever seen — it’s the first time in final history that no team has held a two-goal lead at any point through five games — yet we’ve somehow avoided any overtime. And every now and then, an injured goalie who sometimes seems like he can barely stand decides to charge out of his net to body check his own defenseman. (More on that last bit in a second, since it turns out to be important.)
Given all that, it made a certain sort of sense when the hockey world arrived back in Tampa last weekend to find that the downtown had been taken over by an anime convention, with the streets full of cosplaying fans dressed as superheroes and cartoon characters. When you’ve got a Stanley Cup that refuses to make much sense, why not mix in a few grown men dressed as Pikachu?
Somehow, it all worked together. Over here is an enthusiastic 16-year-old with a lightsaber getting dropped off at the entrance by his mom. Over there is an unheralded 21-year-old rookie going head-to-head with All-Stars and winning. This lady is pretending she can cast magic spells. That guy is pretending he didn’t bite anyone. Here’s Captain America, there’s Captain Everything, and the whole time you’re just thinking, Why not? Why the hell not? Who ever said any of this should make sense?
And so, it goes without saying, the big moment from Saturday’s game didn’t come off of a brilliant rush or a sterling defensive effort. No, it came six minutes into a scoreless game, on a seemingly harmless Blackhawks clearing attempt into the Lightning zone that defenseman Victor Hedman was heading back to handle. Patrick Sharp was on him, but not in any sort of dangerous way, and Hedman was ready to chip the puck off the boards to send Stamkos off on a breakout when … well, see for yourself.