TAMPA, Fla. — At one end of the ice, Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford’s attempt to play the puck nearly turned into a catastrophe. Facing token pressure, he passed the puck into the body of Nikita Kucherov, who failed to control the bouncing puck and crashed into the gaping net.
A few minutes later, it was Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop committing the unforced gaffe while trying to pass the puck, as he collided with teammate Victor Hedman while Chicago's Patrick Sharp lurked nearby. The difference between Bishop’s error and Crawford’s blunder was this puck settled perfectly for Sharp, who stashed maybe the easiest goal of his career into an empty net.
The Blackhawks and Lightning are two highly skilled, evenly matched teams playing one of the more entertaining Stanley Cup Finals since the 2004-05 lockout. But hockey’s dirty little secret is sometimes games—even one of the magnitude of Game 5—can be largely decided by luck.
“I never really looked at it that way, but you saying it like that, that does kind of suck,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after his team’s 2-1 loss, which leaves Tampa in a 3-2 series hole.
There is luck earned and luck unearned.
Take Jonathan Toews’ goal in Game 4 of this series, when heavy pressure in the Lightning zone led to Marian Hossa flinging a puck on net. That shot bounced off Sharp and fell to Toews, who banked it off the leg of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy for the game’s first goal.
The Blackhawks earned their luck, as players love to say about bounces.
In Game 5, with the series tied 2-2, there was nothing earned about Sharp’s goal, which was served on a silver platter. On Crawford's error a few minutes earlier, not only did Kucherov have the puck bounce over his stick, he fell over a stumbling, lunging Crawford and crashed hard enough into the post that it caused this postseason's second-leading scorer to miss the final 54 minutes of the contest.
“That old cliche, the game of inches,” Cooper said. “But we've gotten some of those breaks sometimes before. You just got to make them. We can't sit here and say, 'oh, poor us.' We're the last team that's going to sit here and say that. You make your own breaks, and these guys have been gaming out throughout these whole playoffs.”
That’s the standard response from players and coaches alike—you make your own breaks.
But this isn’t about one team dominating another for 60 minutes at five-on-five and being rewarded for that sustained pressure. Throw enough pucks on net—whether they are from 60 feet away or eight feet away—and you’re giving yourself a chance at a seeing-eye goal or a deflection goal. So in that sense, those goals are always earned.
There was nothing skillful or earned about anything that happened during those two plays involving Bishop or Crawford. One puck settled at the feet of an offensively gifted player; the other not only bounced but also resulted in an injury that detonated the highest-scoring line in the postseason.
“That is the difference in the game,” Bishop said. “You obviously don’t want to make those mistakes at this stage of the game, but it happened. It’s unfortunate, but we’re going to have to win another game anyway, so now we have to go up there and take care of business.”
Players are loathe to admit luck plays a huge role in deciding the games they play, and it’s understandable. These are human beings who train all their lives and put in countless hours of work to become the best at their craft. No one wants to hear that all his effort and dedication can be usurped by one bounce, earned or otherwise.
It’s not always the case—and hasn’t been until now in this well-played, entertaining series. But when the checking is this tight and there are so few openings or power plays for skill to blossom, games that can decide champions become more susceptible to events like the ones that took place Saturday night at Amalie Arena.
There was another argument put forth by players after Game 5, one that has much more merit than anything about "earning breaks."
“You could look at it that way, or you could look at it that we were outplayed in the first,” Lightning forward Brian Boyle said, referring to Chicago’s 9-2 shot differential before Sharp’s goal. “Bish played great and kept it at one. We knew we had to be better either way. Being down one, we didn’t dwell on it being a fluky goal against. We needed to be a lot better anyways.
“We have to score more than one goal.”
Valtteri Filppula did score for the Lightning, pulling them into a 1-1 tie at the 10:53 mark of the second period. So maybe that goal washed away the bad luck. You could argue that the Lightning were on even footing heading to the third period and Antoine Vermette’s winner became independent of the luck in the first period.
Nobody tracks a statistic that measures a team’s record when a goaltender allows a poor goal, be it based on ineptitude or misfortune.
There is a statistic, however, that tracks wins and losses when a team scores first; Chicago and Tampa Bay are both 11-1 when scoring first during this postseason, so let's not discount the meaning of that Sharp goal just because Filppula tied it.
Overall, teams that score first in the 2015 playoffs are 62-26.
Game 5 concluded with each team again being nearly indistinguishable from the other statistically.
Tampa had a 32-29 edge in shots, which includes a 27-15 advantage over the final two periods. Natural Stat Trick had the Lightning with a 57-54 edge in even-strength shot attempts, another indication that these are two elite teams going blow for blow with a Stanley Cup on the line.
For all the analysis about star players' production and the distribution of minutes among defensemen and line matching and special teams, sometimes this stupid game is determined by how a puck deadens after it hits someone’s leg pads.
“The margin of error on both teams is minimal,” Cooper said. “You look at what happened to Bishop and Hedman today, those two guys aren't trying to make that happen. That was an unfortunate incident. Ended up in our net.
“I guess the only problem is this isn't Game 4 in the season where you got 78 more to go. Now we're down to this is it. Now there's no margin for error. Hey, we're still alive. This is not near over.”
As luck would have it, the Lightning have already erased a 3-2 series deficit in the postseason, rallying to beat Detroit in the first round.
But with these teams being at the mercy of bounces, there's no telling what will happen in Game 6 in Chicago on Monday night.
All statistics via NHL.com.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.