Huge test for Blackhawks this week: 3 games against Lightning

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane breaks past Tampa Bay defenseman Ryan McDonagh during their Jan. 15 game in Florida. The Lightning won 5-2, and visit the United Center for three games starting Thursday night.

    Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane breaks past Tampa Bay defenseman Ryan McDonagh during their Jan. 15 game in Florida. The Lightning won 5-2, and visit the United Center for three games starting Thursday night. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 3/3/2021 5:03 PM

As measuring sticks go, they don't get much bigger than the Blackhawks' daunting midterm test they're facing this week against defending champion Tampa Bay.

In a way, it's reminiscent of the 1985-86 Bulls when an upstart group -- led by young superstar Michael Jordan -- faced the far more dominant Boston Celtics in an opening-round playoff series.

 

The Bulls were swept in that best-of-five, but Jordan put on a show for the ages in Game 2 when he poured in 63 points in a double-overtime thriller.

One big difference is -- other than Jordan -- the Bulls were fairly awful. Another is these Hawks are led by a seasoned veteran in Patrick Kane. They've shocked the hockey world by going 12-7-4, thanks in large part to their superstar putting together an MVP-type season, Alex DeBrincat's resurgence and a group of young, hungry overachievers proving they indeed belong.

What awaits them over the next four days is nothing short of the biggest test in hockey.

The Lightning are 15-4-1. They've outscored their opponents 72-39, a plus-32 differential that leads the league. They rank eighth on the power play at 26.5% and first on the penalty kill at 88.6%.

Seven players have 5 or more goals. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has shut out three consecutive opponents. He hasn't allowed a goal in 200 minutes, 45 seconds -- two minutes short of the franchise record.

So, yeah, the Hawks will definitely be up against it Thursday, Friday and Sunday.

"I think you get excited about the fact we are playing them three times in a row and it is a mini playoff series," said coach Jeremy Colliton. "But then how you tackle it is being really short-term and focus on your next 40 seconds."

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One key to hanging with Tampa Bay is to limit offensive chances for a wildly talented group that includes Steven Stamkos (10 goals), Ondrej Palat (6 PP goals), Brayden Point (7G, 12A) and perennial Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman (4G, 15A).

What sometimes gets lost in the shuffle is how good the Lightning are defensively. The 'D' corps is led by Hedman, who chews up more than 25 minutes a game, and it includes 22-year-old Mikhail Sergachev (14 assists), shot-blocking specialist Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak and former Hawk Jan Rutta.

"They're all on the same page in their systems -- they're just supporting each other," said Hawks goalie Malcolm Subban. "If one guy gets beat, another one's there to help. It feels like they're always on top of you."

Even if you somehow get a Grade A chance, you've got to beat Vasilevskiy. Since the start of the 2017-18 season, the 6-foot-3 Russian is 131-44-11 with a .922 save percentage and 2.45 goals-against average. This year, he has the most victories (13), most shutouts (3), best save percentage (.942) and lowest GAA (1.75).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Talk about somebody that's in a groove, he is most certainly in one right now," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after a 2-0 win over Dallas Wednesday. "Just to watch his growth, it's been awesome."

On top of all of that, Tampa's opponents have managed just 8 power-play goals in 70 chances, an 11.4-percent success rate. It drops to 6.25 percent since Feb. 1 (3 of 48).

Oh, and just wait until the second period. That's when the Lightning have outscored their foes 29-13. It's those 20 minutes that might decide the outcome of these three games.

"The second period magnifies all the details of your game," Colliton said, referring to the fact each team must make the "long change" to their respective benches. "If you're doing the details well then it's an opportunity and you can exploit teams. Obviously they're a great team, so that's what they do. ...

"We're going to focus on the first five minutes -- the first rotation -- and being sharp. But we know the second period is a big moment in the game."

When the weekend's over we'll see how far the Hawks have come since dropping their opening two games in Tampa 5-1 and 5-2. This much is for sure: Every coach and player is ready to get it on.

"It's a challenge for sure," forward Dominik Kubalik said. "We're a different team than we were (at) the beginning. We're getting better and we're excited. It's going to be a big challenge for us and we're looking for it."

Roster moves

The Hawks assigned forward Brandon Pirri and defenseman Lucas Carlsson to Rockford.

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