The Tampa Bay Lightning face a daunting challenge now that their Eastern Conference Final series against the Pittsburgh Penguins is tied 2-2 and reduced to a best-of-three.
Two of the final three games in the series will be played at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center, including tonight’s Game 5, giving the Penguins the slight advantage.
But the Lightning faced this exact scenario a year ago in the ECF against the New York Rangers. In that series, the Bolts would win both road games, including a 2-0 shutout of the Rangers in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden, a place the Rangers had never lost a Game 7 previously, to advance to their second-ever Stanley Cup Final and first under head coach Jon Cooper.
That experience should serve the Lightning well as they try to wrestle the series lead back from the Penguins tonight.
“It’s a good lesson because (the Rangers) were a tough challenge than, and it’s going to be a really tough challenge (in Pittsburgh),” Lightning center Brian Boyle said. “But the way we played in that Game 5, we were really, really responsible. We skated. We competed. We wanted to make sure we didn’t give up too much in terms of scoring chances against, and it’s going to have to be the same (tonight).”
The Lightning enter Game 5 with confidence knowing they’ve been in this situation before and haven’t just survived but thrived. Tampa Bay blanked the Rangers in Game 5 behind a 26-save performance by Ben Bishop, and while the Bolts likely won’t have Bishop tonight as he continues to recover from a lower-body injury, backup goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is more than capable of producing similar results.
Vasilevskiy earned his first-career playoff victory as a starter after stopping 35-of-38 Pittsburgh shots in Game 4 at Amalie Arena on Friday to level the series.
“I don’t like going back to last series and stuff like that,” said Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman, who will make his fourth-straight start tonight after missing the final couple weeks of the regular season and the first 11 games of the playoffs with a non-displaced fracture of his left fibula. “This playoffs is totally different, but I think that Game 5 there and that Game 7 against (the Rangers) were probably two of our absolutely best games that playoffs. So, I think we can learn from that experience and know that that game is in us. It’s just a matter of bringing it out.”
No doubt, the pro-Pittsburgh crowd at Consol will be doing everything possible to make it difficult for the Lightning to exit with a victory tonight. But the Bolts are ready. They faced hostile environments during last year’s run to the Stanley Cup Final too, including an elimination Game 6 in the First Round versus Detroit, opening the Second Round in Montreal against the Atlantic Division champion and the two aforementioned contests against the Rangers at MSG.
“It’s always hard to play in opposing buildings,” Bolts blueliner Jason Garrison said. “I don’t think it’s going to be any different (tonight). It’s usually the same (building to building). (The Penguins) play really aggressive in their building, and I think that’s what we’re going to expect.”
The Lightning’s task tonight will be made somewhat easier as it was announced today Pittsburgh defenseman Trevor Daley will miss the rest of the playoffs with a broken ankle sustained in Game 4. Daley averaged over 22 minutes of time on ice during the postseason, second among Pens defensemen to only Kris Letang.
Also, the Penguins will go with veteran netminder Marc-Andre Fleury in net to start Game 5 rather than rookie Matt Murray, who had started the last 13 playoff games for the Pens. Fleury entered at the start of the third period of Game 4 with the Penguins behind 4-0 and made stops on all seven shots he faced as the Pens battled back to 4-3.
Tonight will be Fleury’s first start and second appearance since March 31.
“They’ve got elite goalies, whoever they put in net,” Stralman said. “They’re going to give a good game for them and a chance to win. It’s just a matter of how we challenge that goalie that’s in there, how many pucks we get at him and how good we are at being in front of him and creating confusion for him.”
The Lightning had their best performance of the ECF in Game 4, playing with purpose, winning the majority of the 50/50 puck battles, starting strong and continuing that momentum throughout the course of the game.
A similar effort will be required tonight.
“We came out with good energy. We had a strong fore check. We played physical. We played well. We played like a team that wanted to win a game (rather) than sit back and wait for something to happen,” Stralman said. “We just kind of took control and went after them, and that’s kind of the same mindset we want to have tonight. We want to go out and play strong, play hard and fast right from the start and keep going. We had a great start here in Game 2, but after that, it just kind of stopped. We definitely want to go back and play for 60 minutes.”