There was a moment during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, after the Pittsburgh Penguins tied the game at two, when it seemed that the series’ momentum was going to swing back in favor of the Penguins, like a pendulum. At that moment, gritty, grinding forwards Steve Downie and Ryan Malone halted the Penguins’ play and used their own momentum to propel the Lightning into a decisive Game 7 to be played on Wednesday night (8 p.m., Sun Sports, 970 WFLA).
That is playoff hockey though. Each game is dominated by physical play with ebbs and flows of emotion and fortune. During a time when the intensity is ramped up in the chase for Lord Stanley’s chalice, it is hard to imagine that each player is asked to raise his game to a higher level each period, each game, each round.
With 16 teams all battling for the same prize, as forward Steve Downie says, “each playoff series becomes a battle. A seven-game war.”
The only teams that are able to run the gauntlet and conquer the Cup are the ones that battle more ferociously. Each team has to want it more than the other and subsequently come out harder than the rest.
That effort begins with mucking it up in the “dirty” areas of the ice, body checking, fighting for position in front of the net and recovering the puck amongst many other aspects. Those responsibilities are pivotal to having success in the playoffs. They are all part of paying the price. As alternate captain Martin St. Louis, who fractured two teeth in Game 1, says, to be successful in the playoffs it takes “blood and sweat.”
Luckily for the Bolts, they have two crucial pieces who are not afraid to sacrifice themselves in these areas, where games are often won and lost. Those crucial players are Downie and Ryan Malone, both of whom returned from injury in the final weeks of the regular season to help flatten the speed bump and return the Lightning to their winning ways.
While the two gritty forwards were out of the lineup the Lightning struggled to match their previous winning ways from earlier in the year. During the nine-game absence of Downie, (out from March 3 to March 22) the team went 2-3-4. In the 21 games that the Lightning were missing Malone (out from February 12 to March 29) the team went 8-7-6.
When Malone and Downie returned at the end of the regular season, it would appear the team’s struggles were put behind them. With Malone in the lineup the Lightning posted a record of 3-1-0, and with Downie back in the lineup, the team went 7-2-0.
For the Lightning, the timing of getting those players back could not have been more impeccable. They epitomize the grind-it-out, physical style that is necessary to win in the playoffs.
“Bugsy and Downsie’s physical game is so important to our team,” said forward Simon Gagne. “They play hard, they go to the net for rebounds, screen the goalie and they battle to create space for us to make plays.”
Although their presence in the lineup is certainly felt by the opposition, it isn’t just having them on the team that has made the difference. It is having the whole lineup together - every piece of the puzzle.
“All the guys are important at this time of the season, no matter what their role is,” said Gagne. “The roles that are given are all important, it doesn’t matter what it is. Whether you play five minutes or 20 minutes, you dress for a reason.”
Regardless, having Malone and Downie back in the lineup filling their roles for the playoffs is certainly going to be vital for the Bolts to be successful. Their high-octane style and contagious energy play an important factor in dictating games, especially ones of this magnitude.
“Both of those guys bring a role that you need to have in the playoffs,” added Gagne. “They bring a physical aspect that you need at this moment. Those guys are going to finish their checks every time they are on the ice and I’m sure the other teams don’t like that.”
That is their duty though. They play a style that is imposing, overwhelming and almost suffocating for other teams. Their game is focused on opening up the ice for Lightning forwards. That in turn helps the offense create opportunities and scoring chances.
“We want to create havoc on the ice,” said Downie. “When we are in front of the net, or grinding it out and delivering body checks, that is what we are trying to accomplish.”
When they do it just right, much like they both did in Game 6 when Downie scored the game-winning goal with three points and Malone added the insurance goal, the Bolts can benefit from the added offense.
“Eventually the opposition may shy away when they see us on the ice, said Malone. “We feel comfortable finishing our checks and getting our noses dirty and in a seven-game series players will know that. That can get into their head. Maybe if we get them to hesitate for just a second, they will make a mistake.”
As was on full display in Game 6, every hockey game is dictated by moments and key plays. In the playoffs, when scoring normally decreases and the significance of each goal increases, those moments become more crucial. As such, the presence of both Downie or Malone bearing down on the opposing players and causing them to hesitate for even a second, may not only dictate the outcome of a game, but it could also be the difference in the playoffs.