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Conference Final

Lightning hope experience helps in Game 7 against Capitals

Tampa Bay in deciding game of Eastern Final for third time in four seasons

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning know all about playing Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

They won it in 2015 at the New York Rangers. They lost it in 2016 at the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

They're back, this time against the Washington Capitals at home Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN1, TVAS). The winner faces the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final beginning Monday.


[RELATED: Complete Lightning vs. Capitals series coverage]


How can experience guide them this time, when 15 of the Lightning's 19 players expected to play (not including backup goalie Louis Domingue) have been in at least one conference final Game 7? 

"You know what it takes to win," said Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi, who was on the other side, with the Rangers, in the 2015 conference final. "You have to play a full 60 minutes. You can't take a shift off, a play off. There's no little play. Every little play matters, whether it's a chip out, blocked shot, get a puck on net to make a good play. All those little things add up. You can't take any shifts off. It starts from the puck drop."

Here's the thing, though: Game 7 experience at this stage of the Stanley Cup Playoffs didn't make a difference for the Lightning two years ago. 

Tampa Bay had 17 players, not including goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, back from Game 7 against the Rangers in 2015 and still lost 2-1 at Pittsburgh.

Maybe that's why they don't bring that game up too often.

However, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Brenden Morrow were the only Tampa Bay players in 2015 who had experience in Game 7 of a conference final, and the Lightning won 2-0 at Madison Square Garden, where the Rangers had been 6-0 in Game 7.

So, let's ask the question this way: Do the Lightning have an advantage, other than home ice, going into Game 7 against Washington because they have been in this game before and no Capitals players have?

"I don't know," Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman said. "Maybe. I mean, experience is always a good thing, but it's nothing that I'm going to lean on. I think it's going out and doing your job at the highest level that you possibly can. That's really it."

Video: Previewing Game 7 between the Capitals and Lightning

The Lightning didn't go out and do their job at nearly their highest level in Game 6 on Monday, when they lost 3-0. They were outshot 34-24 and outhit 39-19. It might have been Washington's most physical and complete game of the series. The Lightning couldn't match it.

But they've done that before too. Tampa Bay also had a 3-2 lead in the conference final against the Rangers in 2015 and against the Penguins in 2016. It lost Game 6 each time, 7-3 in 2015 and 5-2 in 2016.

The difference this time is the Lightning's Game 6 loss set up a Game 7 at home, where they will have the last change to get the matchups they want and have the support that can energize them, as in Game 5, when they led 2-0 9:04 into the game.

"First period of Game 5, bottle that up and do that three times and we should be OK," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said with a smile. "When you get this deep in a series, seven games, all these players know each other by heart. Now it really comes down to a little bit of will. You have to will yourself to this moment. Both teams have done this so far. I do like the fact that there will be 19,000 people helping us will us to victory. I want our guys to enjoy the game. It's a phenomenal experience. This will be my third one in four years and you just have to remember don't let the game become bigger than really what it is. Go out there, execute, leave everything out there, see what happens."

Cooper has an idea of what will happen Wednesday. He's coached in three Game 7s, including against the Detroit Red Wings in the first round in 2015, and has seen a total of seven goals scored, including one into an empty net.

"They're tight-checking, low-scoring, close games," Cooper said. "It really doesn't come to how many you put in the net, it's how many you keep out. That attention to detail on the defensive side has got to be there."

The Lightning scored first against the Rangers and won. They gave up the first goal against the Penguins and lost. 

The team that has scored first in this series is 5-1. The team that scores in first in Game 7 in NHL history is 127-44.

"We know what to expect, and this is why you have home ice, for these kinds of games," Hedman said. "To be able to win in front of our fans tomorrow is all the motivation we need. We need the best game of our lives tomorrow, that's the bottom line."


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