Now, the Lightning will have to win a Game 7 on the road at Madison Square Garden, where the Rangers are a perfect 7-0 all-time in that position.
Such is life for a Tampa Bay team that has been maddeningly inconsistent during the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, winning in buildings under circumstances where they had no business emerging victorious and laying eggs in other situations where everything seemingly lined up in their favor.
The deck appears to be stacked against the Lightning advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.
The underdog role is one the Bolts are quite comfortable in, though. They thrive when counted out.
They’ll have to overcome the odds one more time Friday night.
Three Things from a frustrating Game 6 ahead.
1. HOME ICE DISADVANTAGE
During the regular season, the Lightning were the best home team in the National Hockey League, the Bolts’ 32 wins at Amalie Arena far and away the most in the league (Nashville, with 28, was second).
The Lightning set a new franchise record for home victories, obliterating the old mark of 25.
For whatever reason, though, that regular season home success hasn’t translated to the postseason, where the Bolts are a mediocre 5-5.
Tuesday, with a chance to close out the Eastern Conference Final against the Rangers on home ice, the Lightning got smacked in a 7-3 loss.
“Unfortunate because we would have loved to have won this game in front of our fans, but we’ll get up tomorrow and still read the newspaper and see that we’re still playing,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said.
Like Tuesday, a lot of the losses haven’t been pretty.
The Lightning have fallen four separate times at home in the 2015 Playoffs by four goals.
Their worst home loss during the regular season was by three (6-3 to St. Louis on Feb. 12).
In three Eastern Conference Final home games, the Lightning are just 1-2 and have given up 17 goals.
Maybe it’s a good thing Friday’s Game 7 will be played at Madison Square Garden.
“Obviously, we all would have loved to close it out here at home, but, for whatever reason, we haven’t been able to come out and play well after a big win,” Bolts captain Steven Stamkos said. “We’ve played well after a big loss, so hopefully we can come out and continue that trend I guess.”
2. THE DAGGER GOAL
Theoretically, the Lightning still had plenty of time to rally after falling behind 3-1 3:02 into the final period following J.T. Miller’s one-timer from in front.
In reality, the Bolts’ ship had been sunk by that early-period dagger.
The Lightning came out of the second intermission confident, pressing hard for the game-tying goal from the start of the third.
When the score went in the opposite direction, it left the Lightning discombobulated.
One goal led to two and then a third, and in less than seven-and-a-half minutes of the third, the Lightning were already confirming travel plans for Game 7.
“I think we were pressing a little too much to try to tie it up,” Stamkos said. “Didn’t have to be the first shift or the second shift, it could have been the last shift of the third.”
The Lightning played perhaps their worst 20 minutes of hockey all season in the third period. Once New York’s third goal went into the net, the Bolts looked like they were sleepskating in the moments that followed, turning pucks over with regularity and failing to account for New York attackers skating free on goal.
“We stopped playing D,” Cooper said,
The Lightning learned a valuable lesson on Tuesday, Cooper said, one that will hopefully prepare the team for their final examination on Friday.
“Sometimes you have to go to the school of hard knocks to find out what works and what doesn’t, and we’ve got a young group,” he said. “We’ve played some unreal hockey here to get us this far. We showed if we’re not going to play a proper way, a really, really good hockey team is going to beat you. And that’s what they did.
“So lesson learned.”
3. SILVER LINING
Despite the Game 6 blowout, one trend should give the Lightning a glimmer of hope as they approach Friday night’s season-on-the-line Game 7 at Madison Square Garden.
After bad losses in the playoffs, the Lightning have rebounded to play some of their best hockey in the following game.
Not counting Tuesday’s Game 6, the Lightning have had four defeats this postseason by three or more goals. In all but one – Game 5 in Montreal – the Bolts responded with a victory.
Tampa Bay has shown a tremendous ability this postseason to put losses in the rear view and raise their compete level in the following game.
“Whenever we’ve had a low, we’ve found a way to come back with a high, so we have to look at it that way,” Stamkos said. “We don’t have time to sit here and sulk about it. We got beat, whatever the score was, it doesn’t matter. There’s a Game 7, and we have to respond.”
The Lightning will take Wednesday off to recuperate and practice Thursday before getting back on a plane for Friday’s winner-take-all match of the ECF. They’ll get one more chance with the rest of the hockey nation watching to show their resilience.
“We’ll get some much-needed rest tomorrow and regroup Thursday, watch some things,” Stamkos said. “Not much needed to be said (after the game). We’ve got to throw this game out, especially the third. We can build on some things in the first two (periods). We had some good looks, didn’t go in, but one game away from the Stanley Cup Final, I think everyone expected this to be a tough series.”
And the Lightning will have to prove how tough they are to win it.