One might expect the Tampa Bay Lightning to be a downtrodden group facing a nearly-insurmountable 0-3 hole in their First Round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But that's not the sentiment that pervades the Lightning locker ahead of a do-or-die Game 4 tonight at Nationwide Arena.
There's a general sense of excitement among Lightning players and coaches, excitement for the opportunity to have a chance to get back into the series, excitement to see if the lessons learned from a positive third period in Game 3 can carry over into Game 4 and the remainder of the series.
Video: Preview | ECQF Game 4
If the Lightning are nervous about potentially getting swept tonight, they're not showing it.
"I think it's an opportunity for our team, obviously, but at the same time it's going to be a challenge," Lightning forward Tyler Johnson said. "We dug ourselves a hole. We've got to go one period at a time to be able to get it back. Everyone's going to have to step up."
The Lightning get leading scorer and Art Ross Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov back for Game 4 after he was suspended for Game 3 following a boarding penalty toward the end of Game 2. Kucherov put up more points (128) during the regular season than anybody in the NHL since 1996. He hasn't recorded a point in the series but has yet to go three-consecutive games this season without a goal or assist, a trend the Lightning would desperately like to see hold up tonight.
"He competes. He works so hard. He wants to be the best player," Anthony Cirelli said of Kucherov. "He always wants to keep getting better. It obviously sucks not having him in Game 3, but we know he's ready to go and he's going to be coming out flying."
The news on the back end isn't as bright, however. A pair of key defensemen will be absent once again for the Lightning in Game 4. Reigning Norris Trophy-holder Victor Hedman did not participate in Tampa Bay's morning skate Tuesday and will miss a second-consecutive game with an upper-body injury Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. The Bolts will be without Anton Stralman tonight as well. Stralman is dealing with a lower-body injury that's lingered over the final month of the regular season and has yet to play in the series, although he did suit up and practice during the morning skate.
The absences of two of their blue line cogs hasn't tempered the Bolts' confidence, however. They feel if they can play their game and force Columbus to adjust to them rather than adjusting to what Columbus is doing, they can turn the series around.
"I think it's all about playing into our identity, making plays, having fun out there and playing the right way," forward Yanni Gourde said. "I think we've gotten away in the first three games of what really this team is about. I think tonight we're excited to go out there and have some fun and we're going to play the right way and play our way."
Video: Cooper | Pregame ECQF Game 4
"We have a pretty confident group," Cooper added. "We've had this mentality all year. The group is, they've been loose. There's no reason to change our DNA. They know what's ahead of them. They know the task. It's just to win one hockey game, that's what the task is."
Just win one, that's all the Lightning can do tonight. They're not going to overcome an 0-3 deficit in one night. Get a win in Game 4, get back on home ice for Game 5 and generate some doubt in the heads of a Columbus team that lost four straight last season after jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the First Round on the Washington Capitals and a team that's never made it out of the first round in their franchise's history.
"Things are going to turn around and that's when we're going to really be there and I'm excited because I think tonight's going to be one of those games where we're going to be all over them and we're going to make plays," Gourde said. "They're going to see a lot of white (jerseys) on them."