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Lightning confident underdogs heading into Game 6

by Corey Masisak

CHICAGO -- For the third time in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Tampa Bay Lightning will face elimination on the road in a game they'll enter as underdogs.

For a team that was relatively inexperienced when this postseason began, this situation is one they no longer feel uncomfortable in.

The Lightning trail the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, and Game 6 of the best-of-7 series is Monday at United Center (8 p.m., NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). Either Tampa Bay wins, or an offseason likely filled with disappointment and remorse about being so close to claiming the Stanley Cup begins.

These Lightning have faced this scenario before, though the stakes weren’t quite as high. Tampa Bay trailed the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in an Eastern Conference First Round series. The Red Wings had frustrated the high-powered Lightning with shutouts in two of the previous three games and had Game 6 at Joe Louis Arena.

Tampa Bay scored the first three goals of Game 6 in a 5-2 victory and finished off the Red Wings in Game 7 at Amalie Arena.

Two rounds later, the Lightning faced a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden in the Eastern Conference Final. They spent two days answering questions about Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers' invincibility at MSG in Game 7.

Then they went to Manhattan and shut out the Rangers for the second time in as many games in that building to advance to the Cup Final.

"I think we're a growing type of team," Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman said. "Each series in this playoffs so far, we've been challenged, going back to the Detroit series, being in the same situation right now. We learned from that. Even the Montreal series, when we get up early, 3-0 lead, try to close the series out. It's also a big challenge. It's not easy.

"I think there's a strong belief in our team within the group we have. We know what we have to do to be successful. It's just a matter of execution."

Now the Lightning must deal with a much tougher test. The Blackhawks are one win from solidifying their place atop the NHL mountain for the third time in six seasons, and have set the standard for how to build a sustainable championship contender in the salary-cap era.

But Lightning coach Jon Cooper still believes, and why shouldn't he?

"I've loved our will," Cooper said. "We've set a bar for us that's been fantastic. But now, for Game 6, we're going to have to rise above that. We have to find a way.

"I think our will's been unreal. Somehow we're going to have to find a way to scratch a little bit more out. No doubt they will."

Chicago's resume late in postseason series with coach Joel Quenneville and his collection of stars is extremely impressive; the Blackhawks are 42-14 in Games 4-7 under Quenneville. There is also a new wrinkle for this core group of two-time champions: They've never had the opportunity to celebrate with the Cup at the Madhouse on Madison.

For the Lightning to have a chance to earn one more game in this 2014-15 season, they are likely going to need to find some more offense. They have lost three times by a 2-1 margin to the Blackhawks in this series.

"We're here. We've given ourselves a chance," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "There's two games scheduled left in the season. We can be part of that. That's the mentality we've had. We've played extremely well on the road. We've won in this building before. We're going to be a confident group heading in."

Steven Stamkos
Center - TBL
GOALS: 7 | ASST: 11 | PTS: 18
SOG: 64 | +/-: 2
Stamkos does not have a goal in this series, though he's had several quality chances.

"There's no concern on our part," Cooper said. "I've watched that kid rise to the occasion every time he's been asked. We're going to need him to rise to the occasion [Monday] night, and I have no doubt he will."

The lineup could be in flux depending on the health of Nikita Kucherov, who left Game 5 early with an undisclosed injury and did not return.

Cooper said Sunday that Kucherov, a member of "The Triplets" line with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, felt much better than he did Saturday night and could play in Game 6. Kucherov, Johnson and Palat have combined for 31 goals this postseason.

The Lightning depended heavily on their top two lines to provide the offense earlier in the postseason, but role players have pitched in during this series. Tampa Bay has 10 goals in five games, including one on the power play.

"I want to help our team win in any way possible," Stamkos said. "We've struggled to score, obviously myself personally, [and] as a team the last couple games. We'll find a way. There's really no choice that we have. For me, [I] definitely want to go out there and have my best game. I feel like the chances are there. You just got to keep working hard. For me, I definitely want to be a guy that can go out there and help our team get a game back home."

The Stanley Cup will be in the United Center during a Cup Final game for the first time; its previous appearances were at Chicago Stadium. For the Lightning, the objective is pretty simple: keep the Cup in its protective case Monday, win a road game and then go home to play the one game they all dreamed of playing in as kids.

"It's been a phenomenal ride that is not over," Cooper said. "We have to embrace this and have fun with this. I think that's part of the reason why we're still here.

"It's been a pleasure and an honor to coach these guys, to the point where I basically almost stand there. They almost kind of run themselves. To be this close, gosh, it would be a shame if we couldn't try to pull this one off."

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