TAMPA, Fla. — It's hardly a surprise that the Stanley Cup Final is tied at two games apiece with Game 5 slated for Saturday night, as the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning are about as evenly matched as it gets.
"Both teams respect one another," Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said Friday. "They play a team game with speed and skill. It's going to be close the whole way here."
It's how we've reached this point that's somewhat surprising.
The Lightning blew a third-period lead for the first time in 10 games to drop Game 1; Steven Stamkos and Patrick Kane have yet to make even a minuscule impact, and Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop missed Game 4 with an injury after playing on one leg to win Game 3 and may miss Game 5 as well.
So what does this all mean for the rest of this series, which is now a best-of-three? Let's break down what's happened and look at what we can expect in this matchup full of the unexpected.
Which team is healthier?
NHL teams hide injuries in the playoffs the way hockey writers hide from sunlight during the playoffs, but the Lightning's afflictions are plain for all to see and affecting their best players.
Bishop may not play Game 5—coach Jon Cooper said he won't know until Saturday morning if he will have to use Andrei Vasilevskiy again—and Tyler Johnson appears to have a hand problem that's preventing him from taking faceoffs.
"I think everyone's banged up," Johnson said. "When you play this long, you're going to be bumped up a little bit, but it doesn't matter right now. It's the Stanley Cup. There's a maximum three games left, and then you've got all summer to rest. You work this hard to get here. You want to win it."
Corey Crawford has seemed to suffer from bouts of confusion during the Final, but no one on the Blackhawks appears to be laboring or favoring a body part. That doesn't mean there aren't issues, but none of them are likely on the level of Bishop/Johnson.
Which team's stars are playing better?
If we classify "stars" as top-six forwards, along with Victor Hedman and Keith on defense, it's awfully close.
Stamkos has zero goals in four games and will see that missed open net in Game 4 in his nightmares if the Blackhawks win this series. He has just 11 shots in the series, and after playing 17 minutes in Game 1, he's averaging about 20 minutes a night since Game 2.
"He’s been getting chances," linemate Alex Killorn said. "He’s been getting looks. As long as he’s been getting looks, that’s all you can control. It’s just a matter of time before he scores. I think he’ll be good coming into these last three games.”
Kane has done less than Stamkos; he has nine shots, which include his zero-shot effort in Game 2.
"There's a lot of little things that can go differently and you wouldn't be asking those questions about Kane," Jonathan Toews said. "I don't think Kane questions himself."
Toews and the rest of the Blackhawks' top forwards came to life in Game 3, but Johnson's line, along with Killorn and Valtteri Filppula, has been more consistent.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Which team's special teams have been more special?
Tampa's power play is 1-of-11 in the series, including 0-of-4 in a Game 4 loss. Meanwhile, Chicago is 2-of-11, although both goals have been scored in losses.
The only problem with judging special teams is doing so with such a small sample size.
"It's a tough question to answer because if you asked me in the Detroit series how our power play was, it was a huge topic of conversation," Cooper said. "We get to the Montreal and Rangers series, not one person asked a question about our power play. You go through a game where you're 0-for-4, it comes up again.
"One thing I say about special teams, if a power play goes 1-for-5, that's actually really good in this league. You're sitting at 20 percent. We were sitting at 0-for-4. Maybe if we got one more, 1-for-5, things would have been different."
No matter how you slice it, this has been a wash.
Which team has been better at five-on-five?
Much like the special teams, this one is also too close to call.
If you have a keen eye, as you likely you do, you noticed the shot attempts were dead even through three games. In Game 4, the Lightning out-attempted the Blackhawks 22-8 in the third period while attempting to tie the score.
Which team wins this series?
|Stanley Cup Final five-on-five shot attempts|
This is such a toss-up that if they were to play this series 100 times, each one would win 50 times. It would also create the sport's first 50-time Stanley Cup champions and create some interesting arbitration hearings for third-line players, but that's neither here nor there.
The series will come down to goaltending. If the Crawford who showed up in Game 4 makes two more appearances in the Final, the Blackhawks will win the Cup. If he plays like he did in Games 2 and 3, then the Lightning will raise the Cup, no matter if it's Bishop or Vasilevskiy in net.
All statistics via NHL.com.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.