Maybe they can't help but grip their sticks a little tighter, can't help but worry their next mistake will be the one that costs them their season.
That comfort zone the Pittsburgh Penguins
enjoyed while holding a 3-1 lead over Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal-round series is gone following successive losses to the Lightning, who have found their game and rediscovered their confidence. With one more loss, the Penguins' season will vanish with it.
The Penguins were in a similar situation against the Montreal Canadiens
last season, and they couldn't have responded much worse. The experience gained during a 2010-11 season that has turned out much better than might be anticipated tells the Penguins there is reason to hope this Game 7 goes better.
Their fans feared for the worst and dared to only hope for the best when Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
were injured -- and the Penguins responded by piling up 49 wins and 106 points.
"I don't know if we're in trouble; obviously our season could be coming to an end if we don't come to play. But I don't think anybody in here is fearing losing. We feel like we played a good game in Game 6. We didn't give them a lot, but they capitalized." -- Mark Letestu
Now, after blowout losses to the Lightning the last two times the teams met in Pittsburgh -- 5-1 in Game 2, 8-2 in Game 5 -- the Penguins' fans likely are fearing for the worst Wednesday night in a Game 7 that, a few days ago, they didn't expect to watch.
The memories of that 5-2 loss to the Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Semifinals last season are too fresh for them not to feel that way. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
was pulled after allowing four goals, including one barely a half-minute into the game, as the Penguins fell behind 4-0 and lost any chance to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
Now, despite the bad loss in Game 5 Saturday and a 4-2 defeat Monday in Tampa in Game 6, the few Penguins who talked following an optional practice Tuesday said all of the above doesn't matter.
Neither does the franchise's 2-5 record in home-ice Game 7s, one that includes such memorable losses as those to backup Flyers goalie Ken Wregget
in 1989, to the underdog Florida Panthers
in 1996, to an Islanders team in 1975 that once trailed the series 3-0. And, of course, the worst of all, the overtime defeat to the Islanders and David Volek
in 1993 that ruined the Mario Lemieux
-led Penguins' attempt to win a third consecutive Cup.
No wonder the Penguins' fan base is feeling some nervousness and trepidation.
"I don't know if we're in trouble; obviously our season could be coming to an end if we don't come to play," forward Mark Letestu
said. "But I don't think anybody in here is fearing losing. We feel like we played a good game in Game 6. We didn't give them a lot, but they capitalized."
The Penguins were up 1-0 and 2-1 in Game 6, only to have forward Chris Conner
fail to convert a penalty shot that might have changed the momentum of the game and the series.
"Definitely it doesn't feel good, but that kind of stuff happens and you have to move on," Conner said. "It happens and I'm not worried about it."
His comments were echoed repeatedly in a locker room that was missing, among others, Fleury, James Neal
, Jordan Staal
, Alex Kovalev
, Zbynek Michalek
and Pascal Dupuis
, all of whom took the day off.
"None of us are even thinking about what happens if we lose right now," Conner said. "That shouldn't even enter your head. We know we're in our own building and we know what's made us successful this far and what we've done to win games. I think we need to focus on staying positive and doing the right things."
What isn't going right is a power play that converted at less than a 13 percent success rate after Crosby sustained a concussion in early January -- and, in this series, has been even worse at 3.3 percent (1-for-30). The Penguins were 0-for-5 in Game 6.
Special teams are a key, coach Dan Bylsma
said, but not the only one.
"Our power play, their power play, our penalty kill is going to be a factor," Bylsma said. "Goaltending will be a factor, our good players, their good players."
Obviously, the power play misses Crosby, who hasn't played since Jan. 5, hasn't skated with his teammates in almost a week and will not play. But it's also missing continuity, a constant net-front presence and the kind of withering pressure that can cause a goalie to give up a rebound goal.
"Maybe a little bit more movement," defenseman Paul Martin
said when asked what the power play required. "We're having a tough time getting it set up. When we get it set up, we're able to move it around and get chances. We've been getting as many chances or more than their power play, it just comes down to execution and putting the puck in the back of the net."
Or what the Penguins haven't done consistently in a series in which they have been outscored 21-14 -- 13-6 on home ice.
"For us, right now, it's just the mentality of (get) the next one," Letestu said. "If you look back at the numbers, it can be kind of discouraging, in the single-digit percents. But if that power play gets a big goal, it's going to look like a great power play."
Maybe it would help if the Penguins could somehow convince themselves they're playing on the road; they are 5-0 in Game 7s away from Pittsburgh.
If they maintain their lack of home-ice success in Game 7, there won't be a Game 1 for them in another series later this week.
"I mean, from one game to another, whether it's the blowout loss or the shutout win (in Game 1), you try to stay the same person, try not to get too happy or get too down," Letestu said. "Game 7, we're approaching it as another game. Obviously it's the biggest one of the season to date, but the mood is the same as it was two games ago."