Nikita Kucherov scored his 20th goal this season to lift the Tampa Bay Lightning to a 2-1 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks at Amalie Arena on Thursday night, snapping Chicago's 12-game winning streak.
In the process, Tampa Bay extended its win streak to seven games and also won its first game in five tries against Chicago. The 2015 Stanley Cup Finalists split the season series 1-1 and will not meet again barring another June date. Corey Crawford stopped 31 of 33 shots and honestly this game could've been much worse without his brilliance.
This one started out very well for the Hawks, as Artem Anisimov scored just 43 seconds in, smacking home a rebound off a Patrick Kane feed. However, Tampa completely controlled play throughout and continually metaphorically punched Chicago in the mouth. A little over six minutes later, Anton Stralman scored on a redirect from a Victor Hedman shot from the point and Tampa was off and running. In fact, Chicago didn't reach double digit shots until about halfway through the second period and had just 18 shots on the game.
As mentioned, there were plenty of games in the previous winning streak where Crawford was just able to steal games by sparkling in the crease. Tonight with the Hawks thoroughly outplayed consistently that wouldn't be the case as the Hawks had more issues in the 2nd period.
A key sequence there had Kane catch Kucherov with a high stick about halfway through, after the Hawks had already been exhausted in their own zone. Chicago would kill the penalty but then Kane would prematurely come out of the box to touch the puck sending him right back in. Many questioned the call but it was the correct one as Kane did not have both skates on the ice before he touched the puck coming out and thus the Hawks would be shorthanded again.
On the subsequent power play for Tampa, they would cash in this time with a Kucherov shot from the right circle that may or may not have been created by an illegal pick by Alex Killorn. Nonetheless, the Lightning would take the 2-1 advantage and never look back, completely clamping down the Hawks to close the victory as Chicago never seriously threatened.
One might blame the Blackhawks for only playing 11 forwards and playing seven defenseman with Rob Scuderi at some point appearing on the left wing of the 4th line. This situation was created by Richard Panik being scratched for sleeping through his alarm this morning to miss the morning skate. Thus while Panik slept in, you could logically assume the Blackhawks sleepwalked through this contest, but that isn't the truth. Tampa Bay thoroughly dominated for all 60 minutes and Panik likely wouldn't have made the difference. You just have to watch whether Panik pays for it with Joel Quenneville with more scratches.
It's just better not to have the knee jerk reaction to this game. The Hawks were bound to lose eventually among all realistic thoughts and this loss came to arguably the 2nd best team in the Eastern Conference and now the hottest team in the league. You move on and you grow as Chicago has always done. Don't be surprised if another winning streak starts up again.
- I mentioned how Tampa dominated and I can't stop. Their speed in compressing the Hawks against the boards and not really giving them much room in passing lanes was really the story of the game. The Lightning are one of the few teams that can match the Hawks in their puck possession game and boy did that shine through. For forwards, Ryan Callahan and Ondrej Palat particularly stuck out to me with their active sticks in preventing clean entries for the Hawks time and again. Tampa had been dragging along for most of this season but now during their seven game winning streak, they look like the team that made it to the 2015 Final. The Eastern Conference better watch out.
- Victor Hedman is just as terrifying now as he was this past June. I am completely overjoyed that he does not play in the Western Conference. Every Tampa power play, I was amazed at his athleticism in keeping the puck in the zone. Defensively, his length didn't give the 2nd line much space as they're normally accustomed to, something we also saw in the 2015 Final. You also have to note how he would basically barrel through the Hawks zone so often, carrying the puck with no effective answer. Hedman was dealing with some injury issues early this season, but he is one of the better young defenseman in the league and it seems like it's only a matter of time before he wins a Norris trophy.
- As we've marveled on this blog recently, you truly have to appreciate what you're getting right now with Crawford. It is pure unadulterated excellence. There isn't a goalie playing better at the moment than Crawford. Stopping 31 of 33 shots in a game where his team barely had the puck in the offensive zone is astounding. His poise and athleticism continue to be a complete marvel. I can't count on my hands how many incredible second saves he made tonight to keep the Hawks in it. This is almost getting to the point where it's routine and you're just not as amazed anymore when he makes terrific save after terrific save. If Crawford isn't at least a Vezina finalist at the end of the season, that will be a true shame.
The Blackhawks complete a back-to-back in the Sunshine state when they visit the Florida Panthers, another team that recently had it's 12 game winning streak snapped, on Friday at BT&T Center.