The Tampa Bay Lightning lost out on a chance to close out the Pittsburgh Penguins at home and advance to the Stanley Cup Final for a second-consecutive year after falling 5-2 in Game 6 at Amalie Arena on Tuesday.
But the Lightning recognize the unique challenge playing a Game 7 represents. San Jose defeated St. Louis in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final Wednesday night to make its first-ever trip to the Stanley Cup, so the focus will be squarely on the Bolts and Pens tonight to see who the Sharks will face.
The eyes of the hockey world will be watching.
The Lightning relish being the center of attention.
“It’s an exciting time,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said in the locker room following the team’s morning skate at Consol Energy Center. “We have to embrace the moment. We can’t be scared now. That’s why I think the experience that we’ve had the last couple seasons is hopefully going to play to our advantage.”
The Lightning faced this exact scenario a year ago when they blew a chance to close out the New York Rangers at home in Game 6 of the ECF but returned to Madison Square Garden to shut out the Rangers in Game 7 – a situation the Rangers had never lost in previously -- and win their first Eastern Conference championship since 2004.
The Lightning have played in three Eastern Conference Finals prior to this season, winning two of the three. Every ECF series the Bolts have played in has gone to seven games.
“Guys are definitely comfortable in this situation,” said Stamkos, who added there was nothing to update concerning his playing status for tonight’s game. “They know the way we’ve got to play. There’s a perfect example last year at Madison Square Garden. It’s going to be a hostile environment. Obviously, they’ve got great fans and a great crowd. They’re going to be behind them. We’ve got to play a good, solid road game like we did last year. It’s tough when you can’t close out at home, but, again, it’s the most exciting game of a lot of guys’ careers. I mean, Game 7 in the Conference Final to get another crack at the Stanley Cup, we’ll be ready.”
The Lightning are 5-1 all-time in Game 7s, including a victory over the Penguins in Game 7 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals – a 1-0 win backed by Sean Bergenheim’s goal and a 36-save effort from goaltender Dwayne Roloson. The Bolts only Game 7 loss came later that year in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final to Boston, a 1-0 defeat.
Tampa Bay has only given up three goals combined in its six Game 7s, a stat made more poignant given the Lightning have been a bit shaky defensively in recent games, allowing three or more goals in each of the last five games and 18 total over that stretch.
“I think everybody has to step it up,” Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. “Puck management, we talked about when this series began, but it’s one of the biggest keys in this series. We didn’t do a good job of that, and it’s not just the D but the whole team, everybody working as a unit, being open, calling for the puck, helping out for support. It’s all on the whole team.”
Stralman said the Bolts were angry after their effort in Game 6, especially when considering they thought they had learned their lesson about closing teams out when the opportunity presents itself the year before against the Rangers.
“’I don’t think anybody in this room’s happy about that effort and that play,” said Stralman, one of just six players in the NHL who is a perfect 7-0 all-time in Game 7s. “I think we’re going to use all of that tonight, all those emotions after that game and all those feelings to make sure we have a much better effort tonight.”
Stralman said it’s important for the Lightning not to get too uptight playing in such a pressure-packed situation, but he doesn’t see that being an issue considering the team’s past experience playing these games.
“It’s still hockey. Nothing change,” he said. “It’s still the same game…I certainly don’t change anything. I approach this like a Game 2 when I first got in. And it’s about enjoying it, enjoying the moment, playing loose, having some fun with it. It’s not a lot of times you get to play one of these games. I don’t think you’ll do a good job if you put a lot of pressure on yourself and weight on your shoulders and all that stuff. It’s about playing loose and working together as a team.”