There are certain moments in a game when you can feel the energy change. While sometimes they’re good moments - a lead-off walk in extra innings in a tie game - most of the time they’re bad moments. Instances where you think, or sometimes verbalize, the phrase “Oh my god” even if you’re a nonbeliever. For Tampa Bay Lightning fans, a perfect example of one of those moments was in Game Five of the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals against the Chicago Blackhawks.
You know the moment, six minutes into an important Game 5 with the series tied at two games a piece. The puck leaked down into the Lightning zone and Ben Bishop raced out to play the puck before Patrick Sharp and his rugged good looks can get to it. The lanky netminder gets there first but he wasn’t planning on getting blindsided by the Swedish Express:
As an adult, sports don’t affect me as much as they did when I was a kid, but this moment was a gut punch. Standing in a hotel lobby in Chicago watching the game from across the lobby, I felt physically ill when it happened. One side of my brain told me that there was plenty of time left in the game, and scoring first in this series didn’t really matter, but the other side my noggin, the one that doesn’t care for logic or numbers, told me it was over. The great unexpected run of the 2014-15 Tampa Bay Lightning was over.
The Blackhawks took the lead on the easiest postseason goal of Sharp’s career and never trailed the rest of the series. They won Game 5, 2-1, and then shut out the Lightning in Chicago in Game 6 to capture their third Stanley Cup in six seasons.
What if...Hedman breaks off or Bishop stays in his crease? Chances are the Blackhawks don’t score on that play. Maybe Hedman wins the race to the puck and starts a break the other way that catches the Blackhawks out of position and it leads to a goal (he admitted after the game that he was looking up ice and didn’t see Bishop). Then Valtteri Filppula’s second period goal gives the Lightning a lead that they’re able to hang on to for the victory.
A victory in Game 5 gives the Lightning two shots at winning the title, including a chance to win a Game 7 at home, something that Ben Bishop had done in style that postseason. Would you have bet on Bishop posting a third Game 7 shutout in the playoffs? Back then, I probably would have.
Not only would Bishop have a chance to steal another final game, Coach Jon Cooper would have had one more shot at the Blackhawks with the line match-ups that he wanted. In the three games played in Tampa, the Blackhawks big duo of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews combined for two assists (both by Toews). In Chicago, those two had two goals and two assists combined. Honestly, if you want to figure out why Coach Cooper used Cedric Paquette so much in the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals against the Capitals, it probably points back to this series where Paquette was so good against the Toews line.
Maybe it doesn’t even get to Game 7. Both teams had won on the other team’s ice already in the series so there wasn’t that much of a home ice advantage. With the series as close as it was, there is a chance the Lightning wrap it up in Game 6 and they were the ones waiting around for the Stanley Cup to be delivered. (I was living in Chicago at that time and that game was played during a hellacious thunderstorm.)
A Stanley Cup win in 2015 would have been nice. Steven Stamkos would have that elusive title and, who knows, maybe he would have left as a free agent in 2016 and signed with Toronto as the prodigal son (ed. note - this fulfills the “How Does This Affect the Leafs” requirement needed from every hypothetical story posted on the internet). The Lightning then sign a happy Jonathan Drouin to a long-term extension and he spends the next eight years setting Nikita Kucherov up for 50-goal seasons.
It would also have been nice to see Brenden Morrow win a Stanley Cup.
Despite all the wonderful narratives we like to create in sports, rarely is there one play or one instance that we can point to as a turning point in a series. This collision may be as close as we ever can come, though. In a series where five of the six games played were decided by one goal and no team ever led by more than one until the final period of the deciding game, giving up such an easy goal was a back breaker.
Add in the fact that the goal happened on home ice and in such a way that it absolutely deflated the crowd (a crowd that was loud enough that Ben Bishop admitted that it was difficult to communicate on the ice which was a contributing factor to the collision) and it’s easy to say that this gaffe changed the entire complexion of the series.
All that being said, even without the collision, it would have been difficult for the Lightning to win the game and the series. Just moments before the fateful run-in, there was another collision that was just as critical to the outcome of the series. This one involved Nikita Kucherov and the goal post:
Kucherov left the game favoring his shoulder and didn’t return. Not having a 10-goal, 13-assist forward on the ice for the bulk of the game was just as damaging as surrendering the first goal of the game. Add his loss to the fact that Tyler Johnson was playing with a damaged wrist and Bishop was dealing with a leg injury that had kept him out of Game 4, nothing could be taken for granted.
Also, it’s not like the Blackhawks would have folded if they had lost Game 5. They were a veteran team that was quite familiar with celebrating Stanley Cups in other team’s buildings having won their previous two titles on the road.
Unfortunately, the collision did happen and the Blackhawks won the game. There is a bit of a silver lining in the loss. Should this core group of players (eight players, nine if you include Andrei Vasilevskiy, remain on the roster from that team) return to the Finals they’ll have that experience in their back pocket. What if...that ends up making a difference?