The Tampa Bay Lightning face the prospect of no more hockey for another five months if they can’t find a way to pull out a win in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena tonight.
The Lightning trail the Red Wings 3-2 in the best-of-seven series and must win Game 6 to avoid elimination in the First Round for the second consecutive season.
“Back’s against the wall,” said the Bolts’ Tyler Johnson. “It’s pretty much do or die. If you don’t have desperation in your game, something’s wrong.”
The Lightning will need to play a near-perfect game to bring the series back to Tampa for a winner-take-all Game 7 on Wednesday.
“There’s no room for those mistakes but the faithful thing for us is we had 82 games in the regular season, five in the playoffs, that’s a lot of experience, a lot of practice,” Johnson said. “So, this is what you play the regular season for, and we need to get this win tonight.”
With a chance to take its first lead in the series on Saturday, Tampa Bay was blanked 4-0 by Detroit at Amalie Arena, the second time in the playoffs the Red Wings have shut out the Lightning and third time this season.
“I think each game you come in and you forget about the last one,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “We realize the magnitude of this game. Whatever happened last game, we learned from the mistakes that were made and hoping to try some things that can help us out in that regard to try to score and create some more offense. But we also have to keep the puck out of our net. That’s the mentality heading in: it’s going to be a close game, whether it’s one goal or two goals that we need to win the game, that’s the mentality that we have.”
Tampa Bay is 6-6 all-time in elimination games but have lost their last two win-or-go-home scenarios.
Asked about his team’s mentality in an elimination game, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper responded: “Score more goals than the other team. That’s what has to happen in an elimination game.”
Unfortunately, for the Bolts, that’s proven to be easier said than done.
Tampa Bay’s offense, the NHL’s best through the regular season has been stymied all series by Detroit. The Lightning came into the playoffs averaging 3.16 goals per game.
Against the Red Wings, that number has dipped to two.
The Bolts rank tied for 13th out of 16 teams in playoff scoring.
So what has to change?
“It’s never fun when you have a tough time scoring, especially for us who had the best offense in the league this year,” Stamkos said. “Sometimes you have to give the other team some credit. They’re playing well, but we have to find a way, give them some different looks, change up some options in the offensive zone.
“We’re looking forward to that challenge tonight and we have to be up for it.”
The Lightning power play has been similarly subpar with just two goals in 24 attempts and zero on the road.
“They’re playing very well, structured, blocking a lot of shots, not making it easy for us to get in front of the net, but we have to just draw to the games where we had success and what we were doing and that’s getting pucks in deep and not turning over in the neutral zone and just competing and out-battling them,” Stamkos said. “We know it’s going to be tough. The power play, you hope in a game like this, can come through for you when you need it most. Like I said, we’re up for that challenge.”
The Lightning haven’t gotten any puck luck in the series either while Detroit has benefitted from a few opportune bounces.
“I think for us in some of these situations, we need the puck to go off somebody’s butt in the net or something like that,” Cooper said. “We’ve watched a few goals on their side, pucks go off legs, one’s gone off (Pavel) Datsyuk’s leg when he wasn’t even looking, one’s gone off (Tomas) Tatar’s. We need one of those to go in for us, and in order for that to happen, you’ve got to create traffic, you’ve got to go to those dirty areas, regardless if they’re trying to hold you up and it’s not a situation where you’re going in there trying to draw a penalty, go in there determined. And that’s what has to happen.”
Stamkos said the key to beating Detroit goalie Petr Mrazek, who has won three of five games, including two by shutout, in his playoff debut, is to get in front of the net and make him work harder.
“He’s a goalie that’s very aggressive. He comes out. He challenges a lot. If we’re going to take outside shots, he’s going to stop them,” Stamkos said. “We need to get guys in front of the crease so he doesn’t have a chance to come out as far as he’d like to, get him out of his comfort zone a little bit and obviously try to penetrate their defense in front of the net and win some battles and get some second opportunities and third opportunities.
“Hopefully that’s the case tonight.”