Defensemen starring in a tight, tense Stanley Cup Final


BRANDON, Fla. (AP) — After Steven Stamkos stepped off the Lightning’s practice rink on a 90-degree June day, the Tampa Bay captain made it clear he is well aware that he hasn’t scored a goal yet in his first Stanley Cup Final.

Stamkos and his Lightning teammates are determined to keep their cool and their focus when this exceptionally even series with the Chicago Blackhawks begins its sprint to the finish in Game 5 on Saturday night.

“Keep playing the game the right way, and eventually you’re going to get rewarded,” Stamkos said Friday.

Chicago’s Patrick Kane feels much the same way, both about his own goalless final and the Blackhawks’ game in general. Both stars are hoping for that breakthrough score this weekend at Amalie Arena, where either the Lightning or the Blackhawks will end the 2-2 series tie and move one win away from a title.

The Lightning and the Blackhawks realize the enormous stakes for Game 5 in a series that still hasn’t featured a two-goal lead for either team. They’re also attempting to direct that excitement into motivation instead of intimidation.

“You’ve got to get caught up in the moment,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “You have to embrace where we are. It’s the middle of June, and we’re still playing hockey. The Stanley Cup is up for grabs in the best-two-out-of-three. I don’t think we should be afraid of that. I don’t think we should walk around being tense and looking at the magnitude of where we are, being afraid of the moment. This is the time of our lives.”

Chicago’s Duncan Keith and Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman have embraced this moment better than anyone. Stamkos, Kane and the Final’s quiet forwards have been upstaged by these two star defensemen, who are both turning in dominant playoff performances.

In a postseason missing a breakout offensive performance or a dominant goaltending run, Keith or Hedman are the odds-on favorites to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs MVP. Barring a spectacular pile of goals from a forward, the series winner seems likely to feature the first defenseman to claim the Conn Smythe since Anaheim’s Scott Niedermayer in 2007.

Keith and Hedman are 1-2 in the NHL in postseason plus-minus ratings and total minutes. Keith leads the playoffs with 18 assists during his incredible extended ice time, while Hedman has set franchise playoff records for assists and points by a defenseman.

Although they play the game differently, they’re filling a similar do-everything role for their respective teams.

“In a lot of ways, yeah, (Hedman) is a guy like Duncan,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. “He makes, more times than not, the players he’s out there with better. He’s a catalyst when he’s in his own zone or the offensive zone.”

Only four defensemen in NHL history have recorded more than Keith’s 18 assists in this postseason, and nobody has done it since Brian Leetch’s 23 during the New York Rangers’ Stanley Cup run in 1994.

Keith’s numbers are uniformly strong in the postseason, but his sheer minutes are the most jaw-dropping aspect of it all. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is relying largely on four veteran defenseman, showing little interest in his third pairing — or perhaps simply demonstrating confidence that Keith can handle more minutes that just about any defenseman in recent memory.

Keith has played 655 minutes and 55 seconds in the postseason — nearly 11 full regulation games. It’s tough to quantify whether those extra minutes have affected Keith’s overall aggressiveness, particularly on the offensive end, but it’s unlikely he’ll get or want any respite in the final games.

Hedman has the second-most total minutes of any players in the Stanley Cup playoffs, yet he has logged nearly 82 fewer minutes than Keith. Hedman’s two-year evolution from a project left off the Swedish Olympic team into a star culminated with his game-winning assist in Game 3.

“I’ve always said this, (and I’ve) been around a long time: I’ve never seen a guy 6-foot-6, 230 (pounds), skate like he does,” Tampa Bay associate coach Rick Bowness said. “He’s dominant because of his size, his skating ability. His growth started last year, and it’s just continued this year. Now he’s on a bigger stage.”

Both teams used the extra day off for recuperation and final strategic adjustments. The Lightning don’t know whether goaltender Ben Bishop will return from his undisclosed injury to start Game 5.

Cooper remains confident in 20-year-old rookie backup Andrei Vasilevskiy — and in all of his players’ ability to seize this pivotal five-day stretch of their careers.

“If we’re not having fun doing this, then why are we doing this?” Cooper said. “I remember on the plane ride home (Thursday), thinking, ‘In six days, it’s going to be over.’ How much fun. How we’ve grown together. You just don’t want the experience to end.”

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