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Pregame Notebook: Nikita Kucherov probable for Game 6 tonight

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov took part in his team’s optional morning skate at Chicago’s United Center ahead of tonight’s must-win Game 6 for the Bolts.

Kucherov wore a regular practice jersey and participated fully without appearing to be limited by the nasty collision he had with the goal post early in Game 5.

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said Kucherov was “probable” to rejoin the lineup Monday night.

Kucherov played just 1:17 of Game 5, exiting the contest and not returning after falling hard into the post, striking the metal with what appeared to be his right shoulder.

“He’s a smart player, works hard, competes,” linemate Tyler Johnson said. “He’s a guy that (Ondrej Palat) and I really enjoy playing with. He makes it easy on us, and he’s an awesome player.”

Kucherov is second in the NHL for playoff scoring with 22 points. His 10 postseason goals rank tied for second, and his 12 assists are sixth-most in the league.

Kucherov has one goal and two assists in the Stanley Cup Final so far.

Meanwhile, Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop continues to “feel better” and recover from the undisclosed injury that forced him to miss Game 4 in Chicago. Bishop played all 60 minutes of Game 5, stopping 27-of-29 shots in an eventual loss.

Bishop also participated in Monday’s morning skate.

“I think those couple days really helped, and it’s gotten better every day,” Bishop said.

ELIMINATION GAME

The Lightning have been in three situations previously in 2015 where a loss would have put an end to their season: Game 6 and 7 in the First Round versus Detroit and Game 7 against the New York Rangers.

The Bolts have come out victorious in all three, including twice on the road.

They’ll need to conjure that elimination-game mentality again tonight when they face the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final at the United Center down three-games-to-two.

“Somehow, some way, those guys have found a way to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘Hey, no more,’” Cooper said about his team following Monday’s skate. “And that’s what they’ve done. I can’t sit here and predict the result tonight, but I can tell you we will show up.”

The Lightning have outscored their opponents 9-2 when facing elimination from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The key for the Lightning in these situations has been their ability to play the same way that’s gotten them to this point of the postseason.

“You have to play like it’s just another game. You can’t change how you do things,” Johnson said. “You have to play your structure. You have to be on the right side of the puck, doing the right things that got us here. Guys might be digging down a little deeper obviously for the situation, but at the same time, you have to play the same way.”

Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said the Bolts have found a way to reach a higher level when their backs are against the wall.

“I think that’s why it’s so hard to eliminate teams from the playoffs,” he said. “A team has so much desperation and a want and a will to win…We know how hard it is to eliminate teams. It’s going to be the same tonight for us.”

The Lightning have lost two in a row currently and have yet to drop three consecutive games this season, a streak they’ll no doubt hope to continue tonight.

“By no means are we done,” Callahan said. “This is a great opportunity for us. We’re excited about that.”

THE PLAYOFF GRIND

Tonight will mark the 109th game the Lightning have played in 2014-15, the regular season and postseason combined.

So, just how are players able to withstand the rigors of a brutally physical game through such a prolonged stretch?

“At this time of year, you’re body doesn’t feel that bad to be honest with you,” Callahan said. “You’re playing for the Stanley Cup. It doesn’t get any better than that. Any soreness or bumps and bruises you have, you put on the backburner. We’re excited to play.”

Cooper said he marvels at the effort his players give on a daily basis.

“I don’t have enough adjectives to describe what these players go through,” he said. “I’m not just saying our team, I’m sure the same goes for Chicago. There’s so much physical pain these guys fight through day in and day out, but I think everybody underestimates the mental side of things and how what a grind it is, the ups and downs of series and games and how those guys have to control those emotions and still give their best and execute under such intense pressure. It’s really, really impressive to watch, and there’s no question, after going through this run, it’s definitely the hardest trophy to win in sports.”

Bishop said the Detroit First Round series, which began in mid-April, feels like it was last year.

“A lot has gone on between then and now,” Bishop said. “It’s obviously been very enjoyable, a great group of guys in that locker room. We’ve been having fun the whole way.”

The Lightning will try to continue the fun by winning tonight and forcing a winner-take-all Game 7 Wednesday at Amalie Arena.

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