The Tampa Bay Lightning have taken the difficult route to reach the Eastern Conference Final.
Why would advancing to the Stanley Cup Final be any different?
The Lightning certainly could have made things easy on themselves by playing a full 60 minutes in Game 6. The Bolts had the support of their home crowd behind them, 19,000-strong ready to celebrate their triumphs and revel in the Penguins’ failures.
But after a Jonathan Drouin goal was disallowed for being an inch offside, the Lightning’s quick start dissipated, and Pittsburgh took control and wouldn’t relinquish until three goals were on the board and 40 minutes gone from the clock.
The Lightning were timid.
They played afraid to make a mistake.
“We tiptoed around the game,” a perturbed Brian Boyle told reporters in the locker room.
The Lightning finally started to push back in the third period, cutting Pittsburgh’s lead to a goal with a little less than eight minutes to go, but the Bolts started their comeback too late and couldn’t come up with the tying goal.
Now, the Lightning will have to win one more Game 7 on the road to keep their dreams of hoisting the Stanley Cup in mid-June alive.
The Bolts have been in this situation before, their experience should counter-balance the Pens’ home-ice advantage.
Game 7 is Thursday.
Here’s 3 Things from Game 6 while you bide your time.
1. THE MOMENTUM FLIPPER
Amalie Arena erupted when Jonathan Drouin one-timed a rebound into the open net created by a scramble on the opposite side of the goal. In fact, Lightning fans started celebrating even before Drouin struck the puck as Drouin’s position, the fortuitous bounce of the rebound and Pens goalie Matt Murray completely on the other side of the net all combined to produce a can’t-miss opportunity for Drouin.
But, while Bolts fans were high-fiving, the Penguins were challenging.
After a lengthy look at replay, officials determined Drouin was a fraction offside on the play as Victor Hedman carried the puck into the zone. The offside was so close, it went undetected by the linesman standing right there.
It had no effect on the play.
It was still offside.
The goal came off the board, and with it, the momentum in the stands and on the ice.
Boyle was asked following the game if the disallowed goal took something out of the Bolts.
“It might have,” he responded.
Tampa Bay never really got another good look on Pittsburgh’s net the rest of the first period. Meanwhile, the Penguins started to get a foot hold in the game. They carried the puck into the offensive zone and were able to keep it there. They were getting good chances in advantageous spots.
A Pittsburgh goal seemed inevitable and came on a 5-on-3 power play following a pair of out-of-character penalties 41 seconds apart from Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman.
Pittsburgh carried that momentum into the second and dominated that period too, outshooting the Lightning 26-11 over the first 40 minutes. They also held a 3-0 lead following second period goals from Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby.
Nothing went Tampa Bay’s way from the time Drouin’s goal was taken off the board until the start of the third period.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, though, didn’t make any excuses. The disallowed goal shouldn’t have completely killed the Bolts’ momentum.
Give credit to Pittsburgh: They seized the opportunity.
“I guess you look back now because we lost the game, so I guess it’s easy to say, ‘Oh, maybe that had something to do with it,’” Cooper said. “But that was really early in the game. I thought we had lots of energy and it would have been nice if that counted, but I don’t think something that happens that early should have an effect on the game.”
2. PERIOD FLIPAROO
If only Tampa Bay’s third period was its first period.
Down 3-0 and with Pittsburgh undoubtedly playing a bit safer to protect its lead, the Lightning finally gave their fans something to cheer in the third period.
Tampa Bay outshot the Pens 20-8 over the final 20 minutes. Brian Boyle put the Lightning on the board 5:30 into the period to breathe life into Amalie. When he netted his second goal of the game for the first multi-goal game of his playoff career, the arena was electric.
The crowd could sense the Bolts had one final push in them and were hoping to carry them across the finish line. The energy absent from the Lightning attack had returned, and the Bolts threatened consistently throughout the period to make it a game again.
“We were just more aggressive,” Lightning forward Jonathan Drouin said. “Too much time in the first two periods was them skating and going wherever they wanted. We were just pressuring and moving our feet more in the third. That’s the way we have to start from the get go in Game 7.”
The Bolts had a chance up until Bryan Rust got free on a breakaway and was able to beat Andrei Vasilevskiy to push the Penguins’ lead back to two with 2:08 to go in the game.
“They played better than us for two periods. That was it,” Cooper said. “All their players played much better than all our players for 40 minutes. All our players played probably better than them for 20 minutes.”
For the second game in a row, the Lightning fell behind by multiple goals. In Game 5, they were able to bounce back from being behind 2-0 to eventually win in overtime.
In Game 6, a three-goal deficit proved to be too much to overcome.
3. KOEKKOEK GROWS UP
One of the positives the Lightning can take out of Game 6 was the play of 22-year-old defenseman Slater Koekkoek, who had his best game of the postseason (and maybe his best game ever in the NHL) in Game 6.
Koekkoek was sound in the defensive zone and a force in the offensive zone, his ability to skate and create giving the Pengins a lot of problems they weren’t prepared for.
Koekkoek has started three games in a row in the ECF and nine of the Lightning’s last 10 playoff games, underscoring the trust the coaching staff has in a young defenseman who only saw action in nine games during the regular season.
“He’s gone down to the minors and worked his tail off,” Cooper said. “He’s really using his legs to be an asset for him, and he’s just growing more confident now. He feels like he belongs in the National Hockey League, and he’s showing it.”
Koekkoek recorded his first career NHL playoff point and only his second point overall on Brian Boyle’s second goal. After jumping up high on the rush, Koekkoek bounced a deflected pass from the left circle to the right circle.
Boyle settled the puck with his right skate and ripped a shot top shelf far side to beat Murray and get the Lightning within a goal.
Koekkoek continued to create as the Lightning pushed for the tying goal. His improvement in these playoffs has been a bonus for the Bolts and should give him a chance to crack the Bolts’ top six next season.