CHICAGO — This is terrific stuff. Just terrific.
If you can, just for a moment, set aside your rooting interest in this Stanley Cup final between the Lightning and Blackhawks, and appreciate what it is you are watching.
That's not easy to do, of course, if you're a fan of the Lightning. You're way too wrapped up every shift, every shot and every save to find something this nerve-racking to be that enjoyable. Only after the fact can you sit back and realize what you just witnessed was actually incredibly fulfilling.
What we have here are two marvelous hockey teams playing with the type of passion and hunger only seen when there is a big silver trophy at stake. Take all that talent, all that artistry, sprinkle in some grit and rough stuff and add a big pinch of intrigue with a mysterious injury to a star player and what you have is a Stanley Cup final for the ages.
"It was a lot of fun out there," Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said.
Try to remember that today in the wake of the Lightning's 2-1 loss Wednesday in Game 4, a loss you likely will remember as frustrating and it was disappointing.
For the Lightning, no doubt, it was both of those things to go along with the sickening realization that a victory that could have put a stranglehold on this series slipped right through its hockey gloves.
Instead, the Lightning comes home with the series tied 2-2 — an enviable spot had it not been for the chance to be up 3-1 if it could have just finished off a Game 4 that was there for the taking.
"This one was a tough one," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "We had the game right where we felt comfortable."
Tied 1-1 coming down the stretch in the third period, this was exactly the kind of game the Lightning has been pulling out all spring. Hang around, hang around and then, bang, someone knocks in a game winner. Except the bang, this time, came from the other team.
Brandon Saad flipped in a change-up backhand rebound between the legs of Lightning kid goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (that's right, not Ben Bishop, more on that in a second) and Lightning's magic had taken off a night.
So yes, frustrating and disappointing, but to criticize the Lightning for failing to return from Chicago with back-to-back victories would be unfair. If Tampa Bay had come out flat Wednesday, if it had given a lazy effort, you could have fired away. What happened, however, was the Lightning lost to a pretty darn good Blackhawks team that showed it has some fight left, too.
As they say, the other team out there gets paid, too. Plus, truth be known, the Lightning was the better team Wednesday night as it has been for pretty much this entire series.
"I know this series is tied 2-2," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, "but I feel like we have had a chance to win every game."
It also would be wrong to blame the Lightning's loss on the kid Vasilevskiy, who was pressed into action because of this craziness involving Bishop. Unless he has the worst case of gas in the history of mankind, it's now abundantly clear that Bishop is dealing with a pretty serious injury. Just the other day, Bishop said it would take a lot to keep him from playing a Stanley Cup final game. Well, it looks like "a lot" happened.
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As the teams came out for warmups, Bishop was nowhere to be seen and the stage was set for the 20-year-old Vasilevskiy to make his first playoff start in a pressure-packed Cup final game. Cooper says Bishop will play again in this series, but the Lightning should be confident even if he doesn't.
That's because the kid was all right. Couldn't be blamed for any of the goals he allowed. Couldn't be blamed for the loss.
"A hell of a job in my book," Cooper said. "That kid gave us a chance to win a hockey game. … I thought he was great."
Game 4 ended in furious action with the Lightning pouring on a heavy dose of offense that did everything but put the puck in the net. Stamkos had two brilliant chances that somehow didn't find the back of the net.
"To be honest, I don't know how one of those didn't go in," Cooper said.
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville started his postgame news conference praising the Lightning being a dangerous team.
After any loss, the instinct is to pick apart the Lightning's performance, find someone to blame and wring your hands over a game the Lightning let get away.
"It's difficult," Lightning forward Brian Boyle said. "We had a chance to go up 3-1, but that's the way it goes."
That's the way it goes when you have hockey this good. In four games, neither team has ever led by more than a goal. The series is totally up for grabs. It's now a best-of-three and this series seems destined to go seven games. Really, that's what should happen.
Now that would be terrific.