After four days of resting, practicing and talking about the Stanley Cup Final to an ever-growing throng of media, the Tampa Bay Lightning are finally set to play.
Game 1 of the Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks is tonight at Amalie Arena, puck drop set for 8 p.m.
The Lightning have been itching to get back on the ice Bolts captain Steven Stamkos said following the team’s optional morning skate at the arena.
“I think everyone wants this pretty bad,” Stamkos said. “It’s not just me. We’re going to go out and give it our best shot. We believe in this group, I’ve said it all along. I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.”
With the image of the Lightning hoisting the Stanley Cup just four wins away, the Bolts insist the magnitude of the upcoming games will not be a factor in how the team plays.
“It’s hockey,” defenseman Matt Carle said. “Same size ice sheet, same building we’ve always been playing in. The only thing that’s really different is how many people are in here covering the series and people watching. We’re the only games going on right now so it’s always different. Once the puck drops, it’s trying to play a structured system and playing the way we know how.”
Carle said everybody’s excited to stop thinking about the games and actually play them.
“We’ve had a couple days here to kind of get ready for this,” he said. “There’s been enough talk. It’s time to drop the puck and get playing. I think that’s just the consensus in our room is we just want to get the series going.”
11/7: The Lightning used 11 forwards and seven defensemen just once during the regular season but have gone to the alignment more frequently as the playoffs have progressed.
Of the Bolts’ 20 playoff games entering Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning have gone 11/7 on 11 separate occasions, including three times against Detroit, twice versus Montreal and in six of seven games in the Eastern Conference Final versus the New York Rangers.
Tampa Bay’s record is 8-3 going 11/7.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper indicated the team will likely use the alignment again in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final at his post-morning skate press conference.
“There’s a ton of things that go into this, whether it be matchups, getting some of your best players out there, more of your forward group guys, penalties come into play,” Cooper said. “…We’re really comfortable with it. I’ve been comfortable with it in my coaching career. It doesn’t always work, but it’s had a pretty good run here in the playoffs.”
Nikita Nesterov has served as the seventh defenseman when the Lightning have gone to the alignment, allowing the Bolts to get a more offensive-minded blue liner on the ice as well as another productive skater on the power play.
“It’s just something that’s been a recipe for us and allows our forwards to get a little more ice time as well,” Carle said. “I think that’s something that doesn’t really get talked about too much, and it’s tough to get some line matchups for the other team’s D when our lines are always mixing and matching. So, it’s been something that’s been good for us.”
Carle said it took some time to get used to the alignment but that everybody has grown more comfortable in their role as the playoffs have progressed.
And, it keeps the defensemen fresh.
“We don’t have to worry about one guy playing 30 minutes a night, and it certainly helps in the long run,” Carle said.
GAME 7 MENTALITY
Stamkos said the Lightning must approach tonight’s game with the same mindset they had for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Friday.
“Every game’s huge,” he said. “This is the Stanley Cup Final. We shouldn’t come into any games exhaling. It should be this is our Game 7 mentality that we’ve had success with so far. You have to play every game like that, especially against a team like (Chicago).”
The Lightning have had considerable success this postseason when the pressure has been at its peak. Trailing three-games-to-two versus Detroit in the First Round, the Lightning won handily in Game 6 at Joe Louis Arena before closing out the Red Wings at home.
With the ECF tied 2-2, the Bolts shut out the Rangers in Madison Square Garden, then repeated the feat five days later in a do-or-die Game 7 with a Stanley Cup Final berth on the line.
Playing with that mentality at the start of the Cup Final will be vital to the Bolts’ success.
“It’s just a matter of going out and playing within our structure for 60 minutes,” Carle said. “That’s what we’ll try to do here in Game 1.”
The Lightning won a franchise-record 32 games at home during the regular season but are just 5-5 at Amalie Arena during the postseason. They’ve been much better on the road, where they were average during the regular season but have played to a 7-3 record in the playoffs, including taking three of four in New York.
Cooper said sometimes the Lightning fall behind at home and start chasing the game, which gets them out of their structure and system.
“Do we get caught up in our atmosphere and the crowd and everything that’s going on? We might,” Cooper said. “We’ve been a pretty free-wheeling group per se when we’ve been at home, and we’ve had a lot of success. When you’re not scoring as much as you’d like or you’re giving up as many as we were, it gets frustrating and we press too much. I think we just have to, our road games we’ve been much more patient and if we’re going to have success, we’re going to have to do that or Chicago will light us up.”