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Burns: Three things we learned from backs against the wall

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

Entering Game 5, the Stanley Cup Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Chicago Blackhawks was a best-of-three series, each team winning once on home ice and once on the road for a 2-2 split through the first four contests.

Now, the Lightning will have to win the final two games of the series to capture the Stanley Cup.

Chicago came into Amalie Arena and won for the second time in three tries this postseason. The Blackhawks scored a first-period goal, gave one back in the second and prevailed thanks to Antoine Vermette’s game-winner two minutes into the final period.

The Bolts’ backs are against the wall. They’ll have to win in Chicago’s United Center to force a winner-take-all Game 7. The Lightning, however, are quite comfortable on the road this postseason, going 8-4.

Game 6 is Monday, puck drop set for 8 p.m. Eastern.

What were the biggest takeaways from a disheartening Game 5 performance for the Lightning?

Three things to ponder while waiting for the Bolts’ most important game of the season.

1. BEEN THERE, DONE THAT

The Lightning have found themselves in this situation before in the playoffs, down three-games-to-two and needing a win on the road to stay alive.

In the First Round vs. Detroit, the Lightning were one game away from elimination, but in a difficult environment with the Red Wings looking to close out the series in front of their home crowd, the Lightning produced one of their best performances of the postseason, jumping out to a 3-0 lead to silence Joe Louis Arena and win 5-2 in Game 6.

The Bolts would go on to defeat Detroit at home 2-0 in Game 7 to win their first playoff series since 2011.

“We’ve gone from an inexperienced playoff team to an experienced playoff team,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “…This team has found a way. That’s why we are where we are right now. We’ve been in so many different situations in this playoffs whether we’ve been up 3-2 or down 3-2, we’ve gone through these now. People can’t sit here and say, ‘well, the inexperienced Lightning.’…We’ve gamed it out these playoffs, and I expect nothing less in Game 6 Chicago.”

Tampa Bay has faced elimination three separate times in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Lightning have won all three, including twice on the road, the aforementioned Detroit win and Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden.

The Lightning have allowed just two goals in three elimination games this postseason.

“This team’s been comfortable in this situation all year with our back against the wall,” Ryan Callahan said. “You don’t have to look too far from the Rangers series, we win Game 5 and Game 7 on the road. Detroit we win Game 6 on the road. We don’t want to be in this situation, but for some reason it seems we play our best hockey when we are.”

Furthermore, the Lightning haven’t lost three consecutive games all season. Whenever they’ve been on a two-game losing streak like the current one, the Bolts have found a way to get back in the win column.

“We’re still alive. We’re not out,” Cooper said during the media session following Game 5. “This isn’t the press conference to say we’re done. There are happy days ahead for us. We’ve just got to push through this.”

2. ONE AND DONE

Too many times in Game 5, the Lightning would work the puck into the offensive zone, fire off a single shot at Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford that he blocked away and find themselves back in the own end trying to regroup for another attack.

Crawford was beatable in Game 5. A lot of his stops produced rebound opportunities just begging to be sent into the back of the net.

The Blackhawks, however, didn’t allow the Lightning to latch onto those loose pucks in front, the Hawks clogging up the crease and clearing before the Bolts could get a second or third shot off.

The result: Tampa Bay, owners of the NHL’s most proficient offense in the regular season, scored just one goal for a second-straight game.

The Lightning also lost for the second game in a row.

“We’ve got to try to create more,” Ryan Callahan said. “We have to score on them too. One goal isn’t enough.”

In the third with the Lightning fighting to tie the game after Vermette’s go-ahead goal two minutes into the final period, Chicago went into a defensive shell, protecting Crawford from odd-man rushes and multiple chances on goal. The Lightning sent 15 shots Crawford’s way in the third, but nearly all were one and done opportunities.

“It’s tough,” Steven Stamkos said. “We’re not getting the second and third opportunities we need right now. We’re getting some good looks, but they do a good job of making sure their goalie only has to make one save. We have to dig a little deeper in those areas.”

3. SLOW START

The Lightning expected the veteran Blackhawks to come out of the locker room determined to jump on the Bolts from the opening puck drop in an attempt to take control of the game early and eliminate the crowd from the game.

The Bolts talked to the media prior to Game 5 about weathering the storm and playing sound, fundamental hockey in the beginning until opportunities to open the game up presented themselves.

Unfortunately, Chicago started the game exactly like the Lightning thought it would, and the Bolts still weren’t quite ready.

The Blackhawks opened with a 9-1 advantage in shots and finished the period with 14 total, their most prolific period of the game.

The Lightning, meanwhile, had just five shots in the first.

“I don’t think (our start) was good enough,” Brian Boyle said.

The breaks certainly weren’t going Tampa Bay’s way in the first period either.

Crawford misplayed the puck in the game’s early stages, leaving the door open for Nikita Kucherov to score on an open net, but Crawford and Kucherov collided into the goal, the puck staying out and Kucherov banging his right shoulder into the post. Kucherov left the game and didn’t return.

Later, Ben Bishop came well out of his goal to play a puck above the circles with Victor Hedman and Patrick Sharp in a race to get to it first. Following the game, Bishop said he called off Hedman, but the defenseman couldn’t hear and the Bolts skated into each other, causing both to fall down. Meanwhile, Sharp gathered the loose puck and deposited it into the open net for the easiest goal either team has scored in the playoffs.

“I don’t think our first period was good enough,” Callahan said. “I think you earn your bounces in that situation, so I don’t think our first period was where it needed to be. It’s hard to be frustrated with the kind of missed opportunity by Kuch, and we gave one when the two run into each other.”

The Lightning were lucky to escape the first trailing only 1-0. The opening period set the tone for the rest of the game, and the Lightning were never really able to recover.

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