NEW YORK -- Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos talked about motivation as he sat at his locker stall in the visitors' dressing room inside Madison Square Garden on Sunday, hours before he will go on the ice and try to help his team move within one game of reaching the Stanley Cup Final.
"You kind of have to realize where you are and use that a little as motivation," Stamkos said prior to Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports). "I think the harsh reality is some guys in this room may never get a chance to get this far again. Hopefully everyone does, but you never know in this sport. It's so tough to get here."
Here, for now, is a punch-counterpunch best-of-7 series against the New York Rangers that is tied 2-2. The series has featured 28 goals -- 14 for each team -- questions about elite goaltenders and top performances from top players.
New York won 2-1 in Game 1. Tampa Bay responded with wins in Games 2 and 3 by scoring a combined 12 goals on Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. New York answered with a 5-1 win in Game 4 on Friday, the second straight game it put up five on Lightning goalie Ben Bishop.
So, about that motivation?
"I think you do have to realize that we're two games away from the Final and leave it all out there," Stamkos said. "There's really no place to hide right now. We have to find a way to respond, to play a lot better than we did last game and to get ourselves that much closer to the Final.
"I know a lot of people say, 'Let's take it one game at a time,' but there has to be a little reality that sinks in that we're so close and we've worked this hard to get here it would almost be a waste not to leave it all on the line."
Other than leaving it all out there, here are the three keys to victory for each team:
1. Stay out of the box
This is usually a key in every game in every series in every postseason, but judging by the Rangers' performance on the power play in the past three games it's absolutely vital the Lightning don't give them unnecessary chances.
Tampa Bay gave the Rangers four power plays in Game 4 and New York connected on two of them. The Rangers are 6-for-13 on the power play in the past three games, scoring two power-play goals in each of them.
"They're making the most of their opportunities," Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn said. "They're capitalizing on our breakdowns. They're taking advantage of what we're giving them."
The timing of the penalties was painful for the Lightning in Game 4.
The Lightning entered the third period facing a two-goal deficit. They could have come back. They played a strong second period despite being outscored 2-1. But Nikita Nesterov was calling for high-sticking at 4:40; Martin St. Louis scored 28 seconds later to make it 4-1. Brenden Morrow was called for hooking at 10:02; Rick Nash scored 1:31 later to make it 5-1.
2. Get back to a defensive mindset
The Lightning were admittedly guilty of going into Game 4 expecting the offense to come, the goals to be there, because they were in Game 2 and 3 to the tune of six in each. They were brought back down to earth. They scored one goal on 39 shots Friday.
As much as the Lightning believe their offense can break out again in Game 5, the focus heading in has to be on defending better and playing a tight game.
"We have enough skill guys on this team that we know if we're going to get our chances pucks are going to go into the back of the net," forward J.T. Brown said. "Pushing too far toward the offensive zone sometimes comes back and hurts you a bit."
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said his team needs to stop worrying about how many scoring chances they're getting and start focusing on how many they're giving up.
"That's got to be the mentality," Cooper said. "We've gone into these last few games thinking guns slinging, we're going to shoot this one out, and we're not winning if that's going to be our mindset."
3. Bish be better
Bishop has responded well to challenges in the playoffs so far. He is 5-1 with a 1.66 goals-against average and .936 save percentage in games after a loss.
He said he has had success in limiting his slumps because he has kept the same mentality he has in the regular season in that he doesn't allow himself to focus too much on one game, even if that one game now is the difference between moving within one win of reaching the Stanley Cup Final or one loss of having the season end.
"When you play 60 or whatever games, you're going to have some good ones, you're going to have some bad ones; you're going to have some lucky ones, you're going to have some unlucky ones," Bishop said. "It's kind of the same in the playoffs. You just can't put too much emphasis on one game. There are going to be some games when you play really well, there's going to be games when you don't play well. You can't look at it in a real short window, you've to look at it in the big picture, and I think that's the big thing. If you treat it like the regular season where there are going to be good games and bad games it's easier to kind of move on.
"You've got to treat it like that, and I haven't had a problem doing that."
1. Frustrate 'The Triplets' line
Rangers center Kevin Hayes said he wasn't targeting Lightning center Tyler Johnson in Game 4 or attempting to get under his skin, but it certainly looked like that was the case.
Hayes and Johnson did some verbal jousting in the second period and then Hayes got in a sneaky slash on Johnson in the third period, after the Rangers went ahead 4-1. Hayes appeared to slash Johnson in the stomach. None of the officials saw it, as he did it behind the play.
"It's just how the game went," Hayes said when he was asked about his mix-ups with Johnson.
Johnson and his linemates, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, eventually got thrown off their game and wound up taking a combined 14 minutes in penalties at 17:31 of the third period, when the score was 5-1 Rangers.
"The Triplets," who were so good in scoring a combined seven goals in Game 2 and 3, won't be nearly as effective if they are frustrated with what the Rangers are doing to them. That's why the Rangers need to keep doing it, without taking a penalty, of course.
"You play each other seven times in about 14 days, you get sick of one another," Hayes said. "You want to win four games before the other team does and you do whatever you can for it."
2. Withstand the inevitable surges
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said prior to Game 4 that he didn't think his team could stop the Lightning's best players, but they had to find a different way to at least limit their chances or curb their surges when they do get them.
The Rangers did that in Game 4. It might be the only way they survive in Game 5 too.
Yes, the Lightning surged in the second period Friday, but that's when Lundqvist had to be great. He was in making 18 saves on 19 shots, including six straight in the final 2:56 after New York took a 3-1 lead.
"It's a bend, don't break kind of thing," right wing Martin St. Louis said. "Of course they're going to surge. They've got some quality players, they're fast. Every team has its surges. We have surges and they're looking at the same thing when we have surges. You want to try to have your push. Their surge can't be so long. You've got cut their surge shorter and have your push."
3. Ride Nash
Left Wing - NYR
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 10
SOG: 58 | +/-: 4
As much as players and coaches will say they don't care who scores at this time of the year as long as someone does, there is something to be said when a team's top players come through. The pressure for the secondary scorers to come through goes down. The confidence of the top players goes up. It's easier to roll the lines and play.
That's how the Rangers are feeling now that left wing Rick Nash broke out with two goals in Game 4, doubling his output in his previous 15 playoff games.
"He's a key player on this team and when he scores goals we're usually winning," left wing Carl Hagelin said. "He's one of those guys that once he gets going he can score two or three goals in several games in a row. There's not a lot of players like that in the League, so it's definitely good to see him get a couple."