Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Matt Carle remembers going into Game 6 at Amalie Arena last year in the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers with an overwhelming sense of confidence.
The Lightning had just take control of the series by virtue of their 2-0 shutout victory in Game 5 at the Rangers’ Madison Square Garden. They had the opportunity to close out the series in Game 6 and advance to their first Stanley Cup Final since 2004. They would have their home crowd behind them, providing the necessary energy to lift them past a Rangers team facing an elimination game.
“We got thumped pretty good in that game,” Carle recalls.
The Lightning fell behind 2-0 and 5-1 before eventually falling 7-3 to the Rangers, forcing a Game 7 at MSG, where New York had never lost a Game 7. The Bolts rebounded from their failure in Game 6, blanking the Rangers 2-0 three days later to win the Eastern Conference championship.
But the lesson from that lost opportunity in Game 6 was learned.
“You just don’t want to take anything for granted,” Carle said. “I think we probably did that a little bit last year.”
The Lightning face the exact same scenario in Game 6 tonight versus the Pittsburgh Penguins. After taking home-ice advantage away from the Penguins by rallying in Game 5 to win 4-3 in overtime at Consol Energy Center, the Bolts have a chance to close out the Eastern Conference Final at home in and go back to the Stanley Cup Final for a second-straight season.
They plan to be a much more focused group tonight than they were a year ago.
“I think we’ve drawn on our experiences as a team from our run last year and tonight we’ll need to do that to be successful,” Carle said. “We know it’s going to be a tough one. The fourth one always is, but we’ve been pretty good throughout these playoffs in closing teams out and closing teams out at home.”
The Lightning are 2-0 in series-clinching games in these playoffs, taking care of business in Game 5s at home against both Detroit in the First Round and the New York Islanders in the Second Round. Last season, the Bolts had a chance to sweep a Second Round series against Montreal at home but got blitzed 6-2 and eventually needed six games to finish off the Canadiens. And then of course there was the lost opportunity against the Rangers in last year’s Game 6.
“It’s a good lesson for this group,” Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn said. “I’ve been in similar situations before, and you want to make sure that you never leave a game without your best effort. That’s what we’ve got to make sure we’re doing tonight.”
Tampa Bay expects to get to get the Penguins’ best effort tonight as their season would end tonight with a loss.
“You know what’s at stake,” Coburn said. “The other team knows what’s at stake. There’s an urgency that is probably a little more heightened compared to (earlier) games.”
The loss in Game 6 last year also deprived the Bolts of the opportunity to celebrate winning the Eastern Conference title in front of their home crowd. There could be an extra sense of motivation tonight to get the job done at Amalie Arena, but Carle said it’s more about just closing out a good team when you can.
“It doesn’t really matter,” he said. “You want to win a series the first chance you get, it doesn’t matter what building it’s in. Obviously we’ll try to use the energy from our crowd, and we’ve been pretty good at home throughout the course of this playoffs, but you want to take every opportunity you can to close out a series in whatever building it’s in.”
The Lightning have yet to play a Game 6 in these playoffs having defeated their two prior opponents in five games. The Bolts own the best win percentage (.733) and are 11-4 in the playoffs.
Coburn was asked if he’s proud of his teammates for getting to this point, one win away from another Stanley Cup Final, considering the adversity and injuries the team has had to deal with throughout the year.
“Proud’s a good word, but you know what, it was our expectation,” Coburn answered. “It was our goal, and when you set a goal, you don’t just settle halfway through. Guys kept working. We’ve gotten great performances from a lot of guys, and guys have stepped up to the plate.”
Tampa Bay has never lost a playoff series when holding a three-games-to-two lead, winning all four prior series in such scenarios.
Twice previously, the Lightning have held a 3-2 lead in an Eastern Conference Final but couldn’t close the deal in Game 6 and were forced to win it in seven.
The Bolts hope to reverse that trend tonight.
“We know what we’re playing for, and I think we’re well aware of what we have to do to be successful tonight,” defenseman Andrej Sustr said.