Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final might not technically be a must-win scenario for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But it’s as close as one can come without actually being one.
The Lightning trail two games to one in the best-of-seven series to see who advances out of the East to play in the Stanley Cup Final. After dropping Game 3 by a 4-2 margin and getting outplayed for large stretches of the game, the Bolts can’t afford to lose both games at home and fall into a 3-1 hole with Game 5 Sunday in Pittsburgh.
Of course, the Lightning have experience coming back from a 3-1 deficit against Pittsburgh having rallied to win three-straight games, including two in Pittsburgh, during a 2011 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal victory over the Penguins.
Still, the Lightning would like to avoid that scenario if they could by winning tonight at Amalie Arena and leveling the series at 2-2.
In order to make that happen, they’ll have to do a lot differently from Game 3, namely, keeping better possession of the puck. On Wednesday, Pittsburgh dominated puck possession and didn’t allow the Bolts much offensive zone time. When Tampa Bay did get in the zone, they were often one shot and done with the shot coming from outside of the prime scoring areas.
“We’re a puck possession team, and we don’t have the puck enough,” Lightning defenseman Matt Carle said. “We need to get back to playing our game and getting sustained offensive zone time. That’s only going to help us.”
Another area where the Bolts have struggled has been their breakout from the defensive zone. Ben Bishop’s absence has exacerbated this issue as his ability to come out of net and play the puck like a third defenseman has been missing. Andrei Vasilevskiy, the 21-year-old backup who will make his third-straight start in tonight’s Game 4, isn’t as comfortable leaving the net because he hasn’t had as much experience doing so.
“It seems we kind of play into their hands and into their fore check I guess,” Carle said. “They do a good job of finding our D-men and creating turnovers. We just need to try to simplify things and try to focus on getting the puck out of our zone and get into our neutral zone fore check and try to create some turnovers.”
The Lightning have averaged just 23 shots over three ECF games. The Penguins have put 41 pucks on net each time out, including 48 in Game 3, a playoff high for a Bolts opponent this postseason.
“We’ve got to simplify things a little bit, get pucks on net, really mimic what they’re doing,” Tyler Johnson said. “They’re playing our game, and we’ve just got to be better at it.”
A lot has been made of Pittsburgh’s speed during this playoff series, and for good reason. The Penguins have been able get around the Lightning defense better than any opponent the Bolts have played this postseason.
Johnson said the key to neutralizing that speed is communication between the defensemen and the forwards.
“It starts with our gaps on the D,” Johnson said. “Our defense is very good at stopping the speed, something that Chicago does very well. I think our D does the same thing, and also there has to be back pressure on our forwards coming back. That kind of slows things down. We just haven’t been doing it enough. We haven’t been on the same page enough. We’ve just got to get back to that and at the same time slow down their speed and help ours out and get us going and spend some time in the offensive zone.”
The Lightning come into Game 4 having lost two straight for the first time this postseason and two straight to the Penguins after winning the first four (regular season and playoffs) against the Pens in 2015-16.
“We did take three away from them in the regular season, so it’s not something where we’re sitting here saying, ‘Oh, we can’t beat this team,’” Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said. “We couldn’t beat them in the last two games, and that’s the way we’re looking at it. So we just dig down and look into the past, do some of the things where we’ve had success and really look at some of the things that are hurting us. The things that are hurting us are things that are a little bit uncharacteristic in what we do. But in saying that, Pittsburgh’s put us in a position to be like that. We served. They volleyed back.
“Now it’s our turn to send it back to them. That’s what we’ve got to do.”