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Lightning hope experience pays off

Tampa Bay needs another Game 7 win on road for return to Stanley Cup Final

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

TAMPA - A year ago, when the Tampa Bay Lightning headed to Madison Square Garden to play Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers, the odds appeared stacked against them.

The Rangers had trounced the Lightning 7-3 in Game 6 at Amalie Arena and were 7-0 in their history in Game 7 at the Garden. New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist had won six consecutive Game 7s (home or road) and 10 consecutive elimination games at the Garden.

Most were ticketing the Rangers for a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, but the Lightning quietly and calmly went about their business and proceeded to defeat the Rangers 2-0. It was almost a carbon copy of the Lightning's 2-0 win at the Garden in Game 5 of that series.

"We just went in, we believed in ourselves, we played to our structure and to our strength, and we pulled off two really, really good games," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman recalled Wednesday.

The Lightning would like to repeat that winning formula Thursday when they face the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of this year's Eastern Conference Final at Consol Energy Center (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports). The circumstances leading into the deciding game are strangely similar.

After coming back to win 4-3 in overtime in Game 5 on Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Lightning had a chance to close out the best-of-7 series on home ice and came out flat in a 5-2 defeat in Game 6 on Tuesday. But they must find a way to regroup and win a Game 7 on the road when many are expecting Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel to lead the Penguins to their first Cup Final appearance since 2009.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper acknowledged the experience last year "doesn't hurt" his team's confidence this time around.

"That was last year, different team, different opponent, but you do get to kind of take what we did from last year," Cooper said. "It's funny how the series has mirrored that, where we go into a hostile environment in Game 5 and have some of those late goals going in on us and still find a way to rally. [We] got beat up a little bit in Game 6, and now you've got to reset and go to Game 7."

One difference this year is the Lightning are the team with the positive Game 7 history; they are 5-1 all-time in Game 7, allowing three goals total. The lone loss was a 1-0 defeat in Game 7 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Final against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden.

Pittsburgh is 7-7 in Game 7, including 2-7 at home. The Penguins have lost three consecutive Game 7s, all at home, since winning Game 7 of the 2009 Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena.

As they did in the conference final last year, the Lightning have won two of their first three road games in this series.

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"In that [2015] series, we had to play some good games, and we had to play some good games [in New York]," Lightning center Valtteri Filppula said. "I think, since we've been playing well in Pittsburgh, it should give us confidence that we can win a game over there as well."

It appears likely the Lightning will have to play this Game 7 without captain Steven Stamkos (blood clot) and goaltender Ben Bishop (lower body), but with the rest of the core of the 2015 team intact, they have a host of players who know what it feels like to play well in and win a game of this magnitude.

Stralman has never lost a Game 7 (7-0). Neither have Lightning center Brian Boyle (6-0) and defenseman Matt Carle (5-0).

"I think it's obviously a part of being on good teams, but also enjoying it," Stralman said of his perfect Game 7 record. "I don't think you can play to your potential if you're not embracing it and just have fun with it and enjoy it instead of putting a lot of pressure on yourself and all that stuff. You play at your best when you don't think too much and just go out and play hockey like you have for a lot of years."

Following the Game 7 win against the Rangers last year, Stamkos spoke about how relaxed the Lightning were, "not just before the game, but on the bench." Stralman believes that is one of the keys to Game 7 success.

"I definitely think there's a calmness within our group and how we approach games like these," he said. "In Game 5, when we got hit by adversity and all that stuff, we just kept going and believed in our system and the way we play, and that's usually what gets you the win."

After their Game 6 loss last year, the Lightning's response to the all of the talk about the Rangers' Game 7 success was, "They haven't done it against our group." This year, if people want to count them out again, that's fine with them.

"I don't really care what other people think and say," Stralman said. "It's all about what we think as a group, and we obviously believe in one another and we play for each other and we're a good team when we're doing that, so I'm not looking at it that we're an underdog or whatever. We're just going in to win a hockey game to play for the Stanley Cup again."

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