CHICAGO — They were greeted by a surprise 20-year-old starter in goal and barely even tested him during the opening period.
Yes, all of the elements usually associated with a frustrating evening were there. Shots off posts and crossbars. An antsy United Center crowd. The possibility of going on the road down 3-1 in the Stanley Cup final.
But these are the Blackhawks and they’re built for big moments.
“We feel good about the way we closed out the game,” captain Jonathan Toews said after a huge 2-1 win for Chicago. “I think we’re happy about the confidence; (we’re) coming out of this game knowing we’re raising our game as the series goes along.”
His last point is debatable — the Blackhawks hung on for dear life in the dying minutes — but the main dynamic in this series remains unchanged.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are young, fast and incredibly skilled. But the Blackhawks won’t be overwhelmed, won’t panic, with an impressive wealth of experience to lean on.
These have been four tightly contested games that haven’t so much as featured a two-goal lead from either side. The Blackhawks didn’t have their best game on Wednesday — witness the 19 shots Andrei Vasilveskiy faced in his first-ever playoff start — but they still found a way to send the series back to Tampa tied 2-2.
What it took was a goal by Toews that came after he drove hard to the net and an act of will from Brandon Saad, who muscled past Anton Stralman, had the puck pokechecked off his stick and still managed to shovel it in.
Linemate Brad Richards joked that it looked the 22-year-old Saad was simply out for a “Sunday stroll.”
“He’s way better now than he was in September,” said Richards. “Just growing up, getting confident. He’s so powerful. I’ve never seen such a young kid so even-keeled. I don’t think anything bothers him.”
It’s the kind of mindset that permeates through this group. Saad was still a teenager rooting for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010 and he was a rookie when they did it again in 2013.
The significance of that winning culture might be overstated at times, but it can’t be stressed enough in a situation as vital as this one.
Even with Vasilevskiy going in for the injured Ben Bishop, the Lightning had Chicago on its heels. They outshot them 9-2 in the first period and looked to be locking the game down in a manner we’ve seen frequently during these playoffs.
The fear was real.
“I’ve got to be honest here, we were on the ropes for big parts of the game,” veteran defenceman Kimmo Timonen told reporters in Finnish.
“These guys are way better than anybody imagined at checking and trying to frustrate you,” added Richards. “We’re learning that mentality that it might be 2-1 games the rest of the way. We can’t get caught up in thinking it’s going to be run-and-gun, and if we do that we just feed them.
“We’ve got to be even more patient than them.”
The Blackhawks pulled out all of the stops after a slow start to the series for their top players. All four forward units were changed — they were even disguised during line rushes in warmup — and Timonen was inserted on the blue-line.
It’s pretty clear how badly a result was needed.
“It’s a huge win honestly,” said Niklas Hjalmarsson. “It’s good for our morale in here too, get our spirits up and get a smile on our faces. This team gets pretty miserable losing games.”
There will be plenty to pick over during the two days before Game 5. The last two minutes were a fire drill and featured Brent Seabrook barely keeping a glorious Stamkos shot from scoring by getting his stick on the puck.
“I thought it was going in,” said Stamkos.
In all, the Lightning put four shots at Corey Crawford in the final 107 seconds and had a couple other attempts blocked or miss.
Then there was a dreadful opening period for the Blackhawks that was baffling given the circumstances. It won’t be enjoyable for them to rewatch.
“I don’t think we were quick enough to begin the game,” said coach Joel Quenneville. “We spent too much time basically not generating in our end.”
Yes, but they stuck with it and kept belief in the process.
It’s down to a best-of-three for the toughest trophy in sports as a result.