CHICAGO (AP) — Kris Versteeg could have sulked or pouted when he was pulled out of the lineup for the Chicago Blackhawks. Instead, the veteran forward proved he belonged on the ice.
While Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have struggled to find any room in the Stanley Cup Final against Tampa Bay, the Blackhawks have used their depth to move within one victory of their third NHL title in six seasons. Playing alongside two other players who have been a healthy scratch this postseason, Versteeg assisted on Antoine Vermette’s winning goal in Chicago’s 2-1 victory on Saturday night.
“I think it’s always about staying ready,” Versteeg said Sunday. “I guess that starts in practice. Whether it be myself or (Bryan Bickell) or Vermy or whoever is not in the lineup on any given night, we all feel we’re good players, we all feel we’re players that can contribute. I don’t think that confidence is lost in us.”
The Blackhawks’ third and fourth lines are a big reason why they can clinch the Stanley Cup at home for the first time since 1938 with a victory in Game 6 on Monday night. But the Lightning won Game 3 in Chicago and are confident they can do it again.
“We’ll find a way,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “There’s really no choice that we have.”
Stamkos and Kane are still looking for their first goal of the series, and Toews has contributed one goal and two assists. But Vermette has two game-winning goals in the final, Teuvo Teravainen scored in each of the first two games, and Andrew Shaw has a goal and two assists.
In an incredibly tight battle for the Stanley Cup — only the second final to begin with five one-goal games — the contributions from Chicago’s role players are making a difference.
“We know that one of our strengths as a team and organization is our depth,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Sometimes you use it.”
Tampa Bay’s depth was tested Saturday night when second-leading scorer Nikita Kucherov crashed into the Chicago net in the first period, leading to a bigger role for speedy rookie Jonathan Drouin and breaking up the Lightning’s successful “Triplets” line.
Kucherov, who turns 22 on Wednesday, flew with the team to Chicago, and coach Jon Cooper said he was “in considerably better shape today than he was last night.”
“We’ll have an optional skate tomorrow, so don’t read anything into it if he’s not on the ice,” Cooper said.
“To be honest, I thought there was a chance he was coming back last night,” Cooper added. “But it didn’t work out. These two days will give him the rest he needs.”
Cooper also said goaltender Ben Bishop was feeling much better. Bishop missed Game 4 with an undisclosed injury and then had a big collision with defenseman Victor Hedman in the first period Saturday night that handed a goal to Patrick Sharp.
“I thought he played an exceptional game,” Cooper said of Bishop, who had 27 saves. “We’re sitting here giving up two goals or less a game. You can’t ask for much more than that from your goaltenders.”
Versteeg, who has appeared in just 11 of Chicago’s 22 playoff games, played in each of the first two games against the Lightning, and then was replaced by Bickell for Game 3. After Bickell struggled, Quenneville turned to Versteeg again, and it looks as if he is growing stronger as the final goes along.
“I loved his response, in this series particularly,” Quenneville said.
Quenneville’s smart use of his roster is one reason Chicago is 42-14 in Games 4-7 of playoff series since the former NHL defenseman took over in October 2008. The Blackhawks also have won 15 of their last 19 potential series clinching games, according to STATS, setting the stage for what will be a raucous atmosphere at the United Center on Monday night.
“Obviously there’s a lot of buzz, a lot of excitement, a lot of things going on around the entire event,” Toews said. “I think we’re just going to do our best as individuals to focus on our job as players and focus on the game and nothing more.
“None of that stuff is really going to help us achieve what we want to achieve. That’s where our heads are at right now.”
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap
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