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Bolts excited, prepared for Eastern Conference Final Game 7

This will be the fifth time in franchise history that the Lightning plays a Game 7 with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line

by Bryan Burns /

The Tampa Bay Lightning have been in this situation before, Game 7 of a Conference Final with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line.

The Lightning have made it to the Eastern Conference Final three of the last four seasons and five times total in franchise history. Every one of those Conference Final series has gone to a seventh game.

This current group of Bolts is 1-1 in Conference Final Game 7s. They won in 2015, defeating the New York Rangers on the road at Madison Square Garden, where the Rangers had never lost a Game 7 in franchise history.

They were on the other end a year later in Pittsburgh, the Penguins prevailing 2-1 en route to winning their first of two-consecutive Stanley Cups.

Asked what's going through his head as the Lightning wrapped up morning skate Wednesday at AMALIE Arena, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said it best: excitement.

Video: Steven Stamkos: "It's very exciting"

"This is one of the best sporting events you can be part of I think is a Game 7, especially this time of year. Not too many people thought we were going to be here after going down 0-2 in the series. (Washington) played very desperate last game and forced a Game 7, and here we are. It's something you embrace, something you dream of. We're one with away from getting to the Finals. It's very exciting."

The Lightning certainly own the advantage in experience over the Capitals when it comes to Conference Final Game 7s. The Caps haven't gone this deep into the season since 1998 when they advanced to the Stanley Cup Final but were swept by the Steve Yzerman-led Detroit Red Wings.

"Your mindset changes, that's for sure," Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said when asked if the Bolts' previous experience can help them. "Your nerves are a lot less. There's always a little nerves there knowing it's a Game 7, an elimination game. I think if you're not used to it, it could be a little bit of an overwhelming experience leading up to the game. So you're definitely a lot calmer and you try to rub that off on the younger guys too and let them know that it is another game. Obviously it's a big stage, everything's highlighted, but enjoy the moment. Not everybody gets to play a Game 7 in their career, especially in the Eastern Conference Final. So enjoy the moment, embrace it and go out there and have fun and play the way we can."

The Lightning's recent near misses fuel the current run according to defenseman Victor Hedman. Tampa Bay held a 2-1 lead in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final versus Chicago but lost the final three games - the first time all season they lost three in a row -- to fall in Game 6. A year later, the Lightning held a 3-2 lead in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final over Pittsburgh but failed to close out the Penguins on home ice in Game 6 and were eliminated two nights later in Game 7.

Those losses continue to sting.

The Lightning don't want to experience more long-lasting pain tonight.

"Yeah, you're not going to forget that until you win a Cup," Hedman said. "Losing in the Finals is probably the toughest thing I've ever encountered as a hockey player. We're not going to forget about that until we go the full way."

Video: Hedman | Pregame ECF Game 7

Tampa Bay will have to execute its game plan better than it did in Game 6 when the Capitals staved off elimination by shutting out the Bolts 3-0 at Capital One Arena to force tonight's Game 7. The Lightning didn't get enough shots on net, turned the puck over too much in the neutral zone and didn't take advantage of two power plays in Game 6, leading to the Capitals win.

The Lightning examined their miscues on video and feel they've identified where corrections need to be made to come out with a more consistent effort in Game 7.

"It's a great opportunity," Callahan said. "We've got a chance to win a game to go to the Stanley Cup Finals, so I don't think there's any pressure in this room. Morning skate, guys feel loose, we feel prepared, confident about our game. It's a good opportunity against a good team that we're going to have to come out and play our A game. We're going to have to play our best to win this game and we realize that."

That, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said, is the key to success in Game 7: embracing the challenge while not succumbing to the pressure of the situation.

"You've got to think about this for a second, when you're growing up and you're dreaming of things or you're looking at your idols, I don't remember myself sitting up and saying, ' Oh my gosh do I want to get that game-winning goal in Game 2,'" Cooper said. "Not too many people get to be a part of this. You're writing history. How you can't be excited to embrace that, I've got to tell you, there's a lot of people that would like to be in the position our team is and Washington is right now. If you can't enjoy that, you're not human."

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