TAMPA -- When the Tampa Bay Lightning arrived at Tampa International Jet Center on Monday, a Lightning blue-clad group of approximately 100 enthusiastic fans welcomed them back from Pittsburgh with cheers and high fives.
"We saw this last year," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "With every round, it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger."
If the crowd wasn't quite large enough Monday for a victory parade, that was OK because the Lightning are reminding themselves they haven't accomplished anything worth celebrating yet. As happy as they were to return home following their 4-3 overtime victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final on Sunday, they are well aware that they still need one more win to close out the series and advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the second year in a row.
Having the opportunity to get that win in front of their excited fans in Game 6 of the best-of-7 series on Tuesday at Amalie Arena (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports) has the Lightning excited too, but they know from experience that they can't get caught up in that wave of emotion and anticipation.
"The series isn't over," defenseman Jason Garrison said. "That's the mindset that everyone has to have. We've got to focus on [Tuesday] night, turn the page from [Sunday] night, and focus on [Tuesday] and put our best game together."
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The Lightning were unable to do that in this same situation a year ago. They returned home following a 2-0 victory at Madison Square Garden in Game 5 of the 2015 conference final against the New York Rangers needing one more victory to return to the Cup Final for the first time since they won their lone championship in 2004. Apparently expecting the Rangers to roll over in Game 6, the Lightning laid an egg, falling behind 5-1 on their way to a 7-3 loss.
"When we played the Rangers, we won such a big game in Game 5, I think the natural inclination was, 'Oh, we're going home. We're going to close this out.' Especially the way we won Game 5. And they blew us out," Cooper said. "Then, we have our tails between our legs and went back for Game 7 and we really had to regroup to pull that one out."
That the Lightning were able to rebound and win 2-0 in Game 7 at the Garden gave the lesson a happy ending. But from experiencing how difficult it was to go on the road to win that deciding game last year, they know it's a high-wire act they'd prefer to avoid this time around against the Penguins.
"This year, we're just more experienced," defenseman Andrej Sustr said. "Guys know what to do, and, hopefully, we learned from that last year, and we're going to be able to close it out at home."
The Lightning have mentioned multiple times how much the experience from last year's run has helped them navigate through the ups and downs in this year's playoffs. The Penguins appeared on the verge of running away with the series after dominant performances in winning Games 2 and 3, but the Lightning were able to re-establish their puck control game after that to win Games 4 and 5.
That they've done this while battling through injuries to top players such as captain Steven Stamkos (blood clot) and goaltender Ben Bishop (left leg) makes it that much more impressive.
"Every series and every game you learn something and you go through a roller coaster of emotions and different situations," Garrison said. "So, whenever that happens, I think the teams that do well are the teams that learn from those experiences."
Now, they're so close to going back to the Cup Final they can taste it, but they don't want to think too much about that yet. The Penguins have plans to force a Game 7 on Thursday back at Consol Energy Center.
In fact, center Evgeni Malkin essentially guaranteed a Penguins' win in Game 6 by saying, "We're coming back to Pittsburgh for sure."
"What's he supposed to say? 'Oh, we're done. We're just going down as a formality,'" Cooper said. "Of course, they're going to say they're going to win, and they should. They're a good team and a good, confident group, but we feel the same way. … You've got to win four, and we're a little closer to four than they are, but you've still got to get four, and that's all our group is thinking about is, 'Let's just get that fourth one.'"