Monday, June 8, 2015

What we know and what we don't after two games of the Stanley Cup final

Ah, the old rotating goalies trick. Works every time.

Saturday night’s Lightning win over the Blackhawks, which knotted their Stanley Cup final at one game apiece, was highlighted by a wild third period in which the Lightning made three goaltending changes after starter Ben Bishop couldn’t continue due to … well, something. That brought in rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy for one shift, during which the Lightning scored the eventual winner. Bishop returned shortly after and played a few more minutes before leaving again, with Vasilevskiy making five saves the rest of the way to seal the win in relief.

It was a bizarre and confusing scene — Steven Stamkos told reporters that the players were relying on the PA announcements to figure out who their current goalie was — and it led to several questions. Was Bishop, to put this delicately, suffering from flu-like symptoms? (Apparently not.) Was he hurt? (It would seem so, although everyone appears to have a different theory over just what the problem might be.) And when exactly did whatever it was start to bother him? (Well, that part gets tricky.)

Based on the timing of his exit, plenty of fans assumed that Bishop had been hurt on the Blackhawks’ controversial goal early in the third period that tied the game 3-3. That play saw Marian Hossa appear to interfere with Bishop by shoving the goalie’s pad with his stick. But there are two problems with that theory. The first is that Bishop’s immediate reaction of chasing down the officials to protest the non-call sure didn’t look like a guy who’d just suffered an injury. The second is that there had already been signs that something wasn’t right before the goal.

Those signs came on the stoppage before the goal, when Bishop called over teammates Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman for a brief conference in the crease. The two defensemen then headed for the bench — not for a line change, but to report something to the team’s trainer. It seemed as if something was up, and that suspicion grew stronger minutes later when Bishop himself sought out the trainer after heading to the bench on a delayed penalty. Minutes later, during a TV timeout, he headed off the ice and straight down the hallway to the Lightning dressing room, and the great Ben Bishop Mystery was on.

Of course, it all leads to the most important question of them all: Can he play tonight? Lightning coach Jon Cooper danced around the question yesterday, saying Bishop “could be available” and that we might find out more when the Lightning take to the ice for today’s game-day skate, which is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. ET.

If Bishop can’t go, the switch over to Vasilevskiy won’t be as big a downgrade as you might expect. The 20-year-old Russian is one of the top goaltending prospects in hockey, and he has experience playing games both internationally and in the KHL. That doesn’t compare to the level of pressure he’d face in a Stanley Cup final start, of course, and maybe he melts down in the bright spotlight. But there’s a chance he could be every bit as good as Bishop has been, and maybe even better.

As we await word of who’ll get the start tonight, let’s take a look back over the past few days in Tampa for some of the other things we don’t yet know about this series, and a handful of things that we do.

What we know: The Triplets are alive and (probably) well

The Lightning’s top line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov had been deadly over the first two rounds, but had slowed down midway through the conference finals against New York. Of particular concern was Johnson, who came into Saturday with a league-leading 12 playoff goals but hadn’t found the net since Game 3 against the Rangers.

That had led to speculation that he may be hurt, and that speculation only increased when he briefly left Saturday morning’s skate. He denied it, because he’s a hockey player and that’s what he’d do if his rib cage were jutting out of his chest, but with the Lightning held to two goals or fewer in four of those five games, his mini-slump was developing into a major story.

For now, at least, we can relax. Johnson scored the Lightning’s third goal midway through the second. It was an ugly goal, one that had no business getting by Corey Crawford, but it counted, and combined with Kucherov’s marker seven minutes earlier it gave the Triplets a two-goal night. Healthy or not, they’ll take it.

What we don’t know: When the Blackhawks stars will break through

That leads us to the series’ other big stars up front, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The two have been just about unstoppable through most of the playoffs, especially when deployed on the same line. But over the first two games against Tampa Bay, they’ve been held to just one lone assist between them. On Saturday, Kane didn’t even manage a shot on goal, which is just about unheard of.

You’ll note that we’re asking “when” Toews and Kane will start scoring, not “if”; they’re just too good to be shut down over the course of an entire series. But the Lightning have done a good enough job over the first two games that Chicago coach Joel Quenneville split the duo up midway through Game 2, with Hossa moving up to play on Toews’s wing while Kane drops back to a line centered by Brad Richards.

A big part of the reason for Kane and Toews’s quiet start has been the play of the Lightning’s top pairing of Hedman and Stralman. But plenty of credit also goes to the play of Cedric Paquette, the 21-year-old Lightning center who drew the task of going head-to-head with Toews. It was such a potentially overwhelming assignment that Cooper didn’t even bother to tell him about it before Game 1; Paquette was left to figure it out for himself when he kept getting sent over the boards and finding Toews waiting for him.2 On Saturday, Paquette even chipped in with the Lightning’s first goal, a rare offensive contribution from a Tampa Bay bottom six that hadn’t contributed much of anything offensively in weeks.

After Saturday’s game, Paquette admitted that the lack of scoring outside the top two lines had been discouraging. “I was really frustrated,” he said. “My playoff wasn’t going the way I wanted … Coop told us, ‘You guys need to chip in if we want to win that Cup.’”

After Game 1, Cooper hung the nickname “Captain Everything” on Toews, and it’s a good one. But based on the first two games, we might have to start calling Paquette “Captain Everything Else.”

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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