CHICAGO (AP) — Jonathan Toews remembers his first postseason series in 2009, and the emotions that went along with each game. These days, the playoffs are a much different experience for the captain of the Chicago Blackhawks.
There was no panic for Toews and company on Tuesday, a day after a 3-2 loss to steady Tampa Bay shoved Chicago into a 2-1 deficit in the Stanley Cup Final. No outward display of frustration.
Trying for their third NHL title in six seasons, the Blackhawks expected a fight — and the skilled Lightning are delivering just that on every level.
“If you don’t want that challenge, if you don’t want that spotlight almost, then you shouldn’t be here,” Toews said. “I think we all work for that. We want to play those important games.”
One of those important games is coming up on Wednesday night. The Lightning have clamped down on Toews and Patrick Kane, limiting the high-scoring duo to a single point in the series, and can grab control of the final with their fifth straight road win in Game 4.
“This is going to be a good test for this group,” Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos said. “Obviously they have the experience. But we’re going through it. Like I said a couple minutes ago, you have to go through these situations to gain that experience. We seem to rise to the occasion every round.”
The Lightning jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the second round against Montreal, and then dropped two in a row before eliminating the Canadiens with a 4-1 win in Game 6. They headed home with a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference finals against the New York Rangers, and then had to return to Madison Square Garden for a 2-0 victory in Game 7.
Tampa Bay’s experience playing with the lead in its previous two playoff series could help in the final against Chicago.
“I truly believe we’ve grown as a team through some of our struggles,” coach Jon Cooper said. “You just think of last night’s game. We’re in a pretty hostile environment. It’s a 1-1 game. We go down in the third. There was no hang the head. It was, ‘OK, now we got to dig the heels in and go get this one.’”
The Lightning replied 13 seconds after the Blackhawks grabbed a 2-1 lead, with Ondrej Palat stuffing home a rebound for the tying goal. Cedric Paquette then scored with 3:11 remaining to put Tampa Bay in front for good.
Palat’s goal continued a disturbing trend for the Blackhawks, who have allowed 10 goals within two minutes after they scored in the playoffs, including five inside of a minute, according to STATS.
“We got to be better in situations like that,” defenseman Brent Seabrook said. “It’s happened a few times throughout the playoffs.”
The Blackhawks were hampered by an upper-body injury for Johnny Oduya, who missed the last part of the second period and played five minutes in the third. Any issue for Chicago’s top four defensemen could have a major impact on the series, but coach Joel Quenneville said he thinks Oduya will be OK.
“He looked all right today,” he said. “We’ll see how he is tomorrow.”
The same could be said of Quenneville’s team, which is used to coming up with clutch postseason goals, not digging them out of its own net.
Since Quenneville took over in October 2008, the Blackhawks are 30-30 in Games 1-3 of playoff series. But they have a 40-14 record in Games 4-7, according to STATS.
“Well, we got a great core of leaders,” Quenneville said when asked about the team’s success late in playoff series. “They’re competitive as heck. They find a way to get better each and every game. They make guys around them better.”
They also have a history of rebounding from playoff disappointment.
Chicago dropped two of the first three games in the 2013 final against Boston and came back to win the series 4-2. It trailed 3-2 in this year’s Western Conference finals after Anaheim’s 5-4 overtime win in Game 5, and then outscored the Ducks 10-5 in the next two games.
“I don’t think there’s one thing you can put a finger on,” Seabrook said. “I think, you know, the guys in the room, we want to be out there and win. We want to be out there in those situations and play in big games. For whatever reason, I think we play our best games when our backs are up against the wall.”