The Chicago Blackhawks showed remarkable resiliency in Game 4 to even the 2013 Stanley Cup Final at two games apiece with a 6-5 overtime win over the Boston Bruins despite giving up three leads through regulation.
Now the series goes back to the United Center for a crucial Game 5.
Since 1939 when the Cup final started using a best-of-seven format, there have been 22 series that were tied 2-2. The team that won Game 5 went on to hoist the Stanley Cup in 15 of those years (68 percent). But since 2001, four of the six teams that lost Game 5 to go down 3-2 in the series pulled off a comeback and won the Stanley Cup.
Let's look at the keys to victory for Saturday's Game 5, which will be the latest chapter in a thrilling Stanley Cup Final.
The Bruins must start the first period of Game 5 much better than they did in the opening 20 minutes of the previous games.
Boston was lucky to escape Game 2 with a win after Chicago bombarded Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask with 19 shots on goal in the first period. They weren't as fortunate in Game 4 when the Blackhawks opened the scoring with a short-handed goal from veteran forward Michal Handzus and won 6-5 in overtime.
"I think, for the most part, we’ve done a good job at weathering their starts," said Bruins forward Brad Marchand on Thursday. "It’d be nice if, for once, we put the pressure on them to start the game and kind of turn things around."
Playing catch-up hockey early in games forces the Bruins to open up offensively and get away from the physical, defensive-minded style of play that is responsible for most of their success. When this happens, the Blackhawks have a stronger chance to expose the Bruins' lack of speed and create quality scoring chances off turnovers.
Putting pressure on the Blackhawks and dictating the tempo of the first period needs to be a top priority for the Bruins in Game 5.
Bruins captain and No. 1 defenseman Zdeno Chara finally showed signs of fatigue and weakness in Game 4 after logging almost 30 minutes of ice time consistently through three-plus playoff rounds.
The Blackhawks made a strong effort to hit Chara and be physical with him early and often in Game 4, and the results were quite impressive. The veteran defenseman was on the ice for five Chicago goals and wasn't fully engaged in the contest, which rarely happens. His minus-three rating was his worst of the postseason so far.
"There's certain ways you can expose [Chara]," said Chicago captain Jonathan Toews after Game 4. "I think the dump-ins that we made tonight were going to his side. We made sure we were outnumbering him everywhere we went, taking away his stick-first thing."
"We just try not to be intimidated by his size. You have to get to the net, find a way inside, not be, like I said, intimidated by that. We can outwork him, and we did that tonight, and we want to continue that."
As the best shut-down defenseman in the NHL, Chara's role of preventing the opposing team's most highly skilled forwards from excelling offensively is the most important part of Boston's defensive success.
He did a tremendous job shutting down Chicago's top line of Toews, Patrick Kane and Bryan Bickell in the first three games of the series with physical play, good stick work and responsible positioning. The Bruins will need a similar performance from their captain in Game 5 to stop the Blackhawks offense from breaking the game open and forcing Boston to win a high-scoring contest.
The Bruins have found a weak spot on Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford, one they have been targeting for the entire series. The place where Crawford has been most vulnerable is glove side, with 10 of the 12 Bruins goals through four games scored in this area.
Chicago's starting goalie gave up five goals glove side in Game 4, including three soft goals in that area that he would want back (Rich Peverley first-period goal, Patrice Bergeron's second goal and Johnny Boychuk's third-period goal).
"Well, 99 percent of the shots are going glove side, I don’t know what you would say," said Crawford after Game 4. "I can’t start thinking about that, that’s when you get in trouble when you start thinking everything is going to go glove. I’m just going to play the way I’ve been playing and stick with that."
Boston must continue to shoot pucks glove side at Crawford until he proves that this area is not a weakness in his game. Crawford knows that the Blackhawks have a great backup in Ray Emery to put in the game if he struggles, so it will be interesting to see how he bounces back from a poor performance in which he gave up five goals for the first time in the postseason.
If Crawford dwells on his ability to make glove saves, he will overcompensate to fix this weakness, which would make him a much easier goaltender to score on. His mental toughness will be tested if the Bruins score high glove early in Game 5.
The Bruins' top line of center David Krejci and wingers Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton entered the Cup final as the highest-scoring trio through three rounds. But after a great Game 1 performance, these three forwards have failed to make a strong impact offensively.
|Player||Game 1||Games 2, 3, 4|
|Krejci||0G, 2A||0G, 1A|
|Horton||0G, 1A||0G, 1A|
|Lucic||2G, 1A||1G, 0A|
|Total||2G, 4A||1G, 2A|
Three points in three games from a line that dominated in the first three rounds is unacceptable at this stage of the playoffs.
The Bruins are 6-0 when Krejci scores a goal in this year's playoffs and 5-2 in games that Horton finds the back of the net. Neither of these players have scored in the Cup final, and if this lack of success offensively continues for the rest of the series, the Bruins will have to rely on their weakened scoring depth to win games.
This wouldn't be a good situation for Boston since its third line has been inconsistent in the playoffs and the fourth line has provided very little scoring since veteran center Gregory Campbell's postseason ended because of a leg injury suffered in the conference finals.
Kane and Toews hug after a Blackhawks goal.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane both scored their first goal of the Cup final in Game 4 (also combined for three points and a plus/minus of four). The Blackhawks will need a repeat performance to win Game 5.
"It's time to put all those other games behind us, the games where we struggled to score, forget about it, just find a way to do what you do," said Toews on Wednesday night.
"It was fun to see the puck go in as often as it did [in Game 4]. We know we can be better defensively. But we'll use that confidence and try our best to pounce on them [in Game 5]."
Kane and Toews finished first and second on the team in scoring during the regular season, but they failed to make an impact in the first three games of the Cup final with one point combined. Toews has just two goals in the playoffs, and Kane has been inconsistent with goals in only three of his last 13 games.
But to no one's surprise, the Blackhawks offense finally erupted against the stingy Bruins defense when these two stars played their best game of the series.
For Chicago to maintain its scoring success from Game 4 when the series shifts back to Chicago, it needs Toews and Kane to find the back of the net and use their playmaking skills to create scoring chances for teammates. Boston leads the playoffs in GAA (2.00) and scoring differential (plus-eight) on the road and will not be intimidated by the raucous crowd at the United Center.
With so many top-six forwards failing to produce offensively in this series, scoring production from the third and fourth lines has played an important part of both teams' success.
Through four games, 22 of the 43 points have been tallied by bottom-six forwards, including the winning goals in the first three games of the series.
Even though the Blackhawks' stars (including Toews, Kane and Patrick Sharp) all played well and scored a goal in Game 4, the production from the team's third- and fourth-line players was the difference in Chicago's 6-5 overtime win. The bottom two lines combined for one goal and five assists after failing to tally a single point in the previous two games.
Meanwhile, the Bruins got only one point from a bottom-six forward in Game 4 after their third line dominated in the two games prior.
Whichever team's third and fourth lines are able to provide much-needed scoring depth will have the best chance to win this series because the production from the top-six forwards will likely even out.
Great depth is one reason why both the Bruins and Blackhawks advanced to the Cup final, and it will also be a major factor in the remaining games of this series.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He is also a credentialed writer at the 2013 Stanley Cup Final in Boston. All quotes obtained firsthand.