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Pregame Notebook: Lightning on verge of Eastern Conference championship

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning have a chance to close out the New York Rangers in Game 6 and win their second Eastern Conference championship at Amalie Arena tonight.

To do so, the Lightning will draw on their experience from previous Game 6s in the 2015 Playoffs.

In the First Round against the Red Wings, Tampa Bay, down three-games-to-two, faced elimination but went into Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena and played one of its best games of the postseason, winning 5-2 to force a winner-take-all Game 7 in Tampa, which the Bolts won to extend their season.

In Game 6 versus Montreal, having allowed the Canadiens to get back in the series after opening with three-straight victories, the Lightning again put together one of their finest playoff performances to eliminate the Canadiens and advance to the Eastern Conference Final.

It will take that same effort tonight to knock out a Rangers team that has won 14 of their last 17 games in which they’ve faced elimination.

“Their backs are against the wall,” Bolts captain Steven Stamkos said. “We’ve seen how resilient they’ve been all year. We need to find a way to not only match their desperation but their compete level, everything. We need to be at another level tonight than we’ve showed all playoffs, especially at this time of the year when it’s so tough to win games, never mind having a team on the brink of elimination. We’re going to get their best and we have to have our best.”

The Lightning have been pretty good themselves in elimination games this playoffs, going 2-0 in the Detroit series and winning Game 6 against Montreal in a match the Bolts treated with a Game 7, lose-and-go-home approach.

“We learned a lot from the Game 7 against Detroit, and hopefully we learned our lesson being up 3-0 against Montreal and dropping two and then finally was able to figure it out here at home,” defenseman Anton Stralman said. “I think we need that mentality. We played that game like it was a Game 7. Everything was on the line. We left everything on the ice. That’s all we need. That’s the mentality we need to go out with.”

The Lightning were at their best defensively against New York in Game 5, blocking 24 shots and keeping the area around Ben Bishop’s net clear to allow Bishop to stop all 26 shots and record his second shutout of the postseason.

But as good as they were in Game 5, the Lightning will have to continue to raise their level of play to advance to the franchise’s second-ever Stanley Cup Final according to Bolts head coach Jon Cooper.

“We can’t sit here and say, ‘Oh, we played a pretty good game in Game 5. That’ll just carry us into a win tonight,’ Cooper said. “If we don’t play better than we did in Game 5, we won’t win tonight, and that’s kind of my message. My feeling for me, it’s excitement, nervousness, fear, anticipation, like I can rip through a bunch of things. It’s a really exciting time. But, as we go through this, you can’t let yourself get too high and you can’t let yourself get too low. You just kind of ride this out and prepare your guys as much as possible, and I think our coaching staff has done a good job of that.”

STAMMER TIME

Steven Stamkos took a lot of heat early in the 2015 Playoffs for his inability to score goals. He was shut out in the Detroit series and didn’t get on the score sheet in the postseason until Game 2 versus Montreal.

Now, Stamkos can’t miss. He’s netted a goal in four-straight games, equaling the Lightning franchise record for the longest postseason goal-scoring streak set by Martin St. Louis (2003) and Vincent Lecavalier (2007).

Stamkos has points (14) in nine of his last 10 games, ranks tied for third in the NHL for playoff scoring (17 points) and is tied for fourth in league postseason goal-scoring with seven markers.

“When things are going your way, you try to ride that as long as possible,” Stamkos said. “I think there’s a correlation between how hard you work and how you play the game and sometimes the bounces and the looks you get. I’ve said this all along, I believed in myself in the beginning, I thought I was playing the right way, didn’t go in the first eight games, but you’re getting rewarded now at this time of year.

“It feels good, and hopefully I can continue that.”

The key to Stamkos’ playoff resurgence, Cooper said, has been his positive attitude throughout the early scoring slump.

“I think there wasn’t tail between the legs, there wasn’t head down,” Cooper said. “Frustration, yes, but you want that probably in a player that he wants to succeed. He fought his way through it to where he is now. We may have got through the Detroit series without him having a goal or produce much offensively, but for us to keep advancing, we need Stammer to produce. He just keeps finding ways these series goes on.”

When Stamkos wasn’t scoring early in the postseason, he was still helping the Lightning win and advance by doing the little things that might not show up on the score sheet but translate into victories.

“I think he’s been great throughout the whole playoffs,” Stralman said. “He’s been playing with a lot of passion. Even if he hasn’t been scoring goals, he’s been doing his job, setting up plays, creating chances, playing physical, just with a lot of energy. When you have guys like him and (Ryan Callahan) that plays with that little edge, it gives back a lot to the team. We definitely feed off that.”

PAQUETTE QUESTIONABLE

Lightning center Cedric Paquette came out for the team’s optional morning skate Tuesday but quickly exited the ice and headed back into the locker room.

Paquette only played 5:43 of Game 5 at Madison Square Garden.

Cooper said Paquette was “questionable” for tonight’s Game 6 but wouldn’t offer any more about Paquette’s up-in-the-air status.

“Lineup questions are pointless at this juncture,” Cooper said. “We’re way too deep.”

Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn was feeling ill during Game 5 and also played just 5:43. Coburn, however, was on the ice for the duration of Tuesday’s morning skate and appears to be good to go for Game 6.

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