The Tampa Bay Lightning know they let one get away.
Given a chance to close out the Eastern Conference Finals with a win at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6, the Bolts stumbled through 40 minutes of inexplicably dispassionate hockey before finally getting engaged during a raucous third period. By that point, though, it was too late. The Pens made off with a 5–2 victory, setting up tonight's Game 7 at Consol Energy Center (8:00 ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS). The winner moves on to face the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup Final.
"We had a great chance," Tampa Bay forward Brian Boyle said of his team's Game 6 letdown. "We kind of tiptoed around it. We weren't aggressive. We weren't on top of it. We weren't skating."
It's the same trap they fell into last spring when they took a 3-2 lead over the Rangers in Game 5 of the ECF but couldn't close the deal in Game 6 at home. They managed to take Game 7 on the road, though. And the memory of how that worked could get them over the hump this year as well.
"I definitely think there's a calmness within our group and how we approach games like these," said Anton Stralman, who is 7-0 in career Game 7s. "Just like in Game 5, when
we got hit by adversity [an early 2-0 deficit], we just kept going and believed in our system and the way we play. That's what we did in New York in those two games (last spring), 5 and 7 there. 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.
"We know we have it in us. It's just a matter of finding that emotion and that energy."
That energy was absent early in Game 6, when the Pens outshot the Bolts, 14-4. Finding it, and finding it quickly, will be a key for both teams.
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Here's what else to watch for:
• Fascinating to hear how the Lightning respond when asked about the efforts of young goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“He's been giving us a chance to win every time he's been in,” said Stralman.
“If he plays the same way he has been playing so far, he's going to give us a chance to win,” said forward Valtteri Filppula.
It's a time-worn hockey compliment. The gist being, he's doing his job well enough, and really, that's all you can ask of your netminder.
Except it's not. Especially not in Game 7.
Vasilevskiy has been good to this point, but he's also allowed at least three goals in each of the past five games. None of them were glaringly soft, and in Games 2 and 3, when his defense all but deserted him, he was pretty special.
But he still lost both of those games. And as a general rule, expecting the offense to crank out at least four goals in reply is an iffy proposition.
He has to be better tonight. Like, Ben Bishop better.
Vasilevskiy hasn't yet stolen a game. But it feels like that's what the Lightning might need from him tonight.
• The Penguins are looking for something different from Matt Murray. A calm, focused performance might be all they need to get over this hurdle. Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan expects him to deliver.
"He has a maturity beyond his years," Sullivan said on Wednesday. "He has a calming influence. He has ... an ability to stay in the moment, not allow any of the adversities or the challenges that the game presents to affect his mindset. If one goes in that he thinks he should have had, he just refocuses and he plays. It's a real important attribute to have as an athlete, but probably most importantly as a goaltender. And he has it at such a young age."
• The Lightning have to make better decisions with the puck in Game 7. They were way too fast and loose with it in Game 6, giving it away 17 times (10 more than the Pens) and having it stripped from their possession another eight times. And that's probably a conservative count—Patric Hornqvist's takeaway that led to Sidney Crosby's goal wasn't acknowledged by league scorers.
Part of that is better protection, keeping the body between the puck and the defender. But a larger issue was their decision-making under pressure. The Pens were hard on the puck in Game 6, forcing decisions to be made under duress. That led to a string of forced errors and extended possession time for Pittsburgh.
The Bolts couldn't muster up the poise they needed under pressure. The team that does that the best tonight is likely to emerge as the winner.
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• Seems obvious, but both teams will need their best players to be their best players if they're going to win this one.
That's no knock on support staffers like Tampa Bay's Ryan Callahan or Pittsburgh's Bryan Rust, who have found ways to impact games despite lesser roles and could easily do something special to grab the spotlight tonight. But games like this tend to be defined by what the big boys do ... or don't do.
The Pens' top guns already delivered once in a must-win Game 6. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin assisted on Phil Kessel's first-period goal. Crosby later scored on a Jerome Bettis Special, driving through three defenders before potting one of the most memorable markers of the postseason. Kris Letang stayed out of the box, tightened up on his defensive zone coverage and chipped in with a goal as well. That's a level they'll need to reach again.
Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Drouin have been brilliant at times in this series, but they were pushed to the sidelines in that Game 6 loss. More's expected of them tonight.
"We've had 100 games of dress rehearsal for this one," coach Jon Cooper said. "Let's just give it our best shot."
• What you've seen is what you'll get from the Lightning. Don't expect any last-minute reinforcements from injured reserve.
In other words: no Steven Stamkos in Game 7.
"Nothing's changed as far as our end," said Cooper. "So that's all I've got for that."
UPDATE: Not so fast, Coop. Stamkos took the ice for the pre-game warmup and appears to be available for Game 7. No telling what impact he can have after sitting out nearly two full months, but just getting the captain in the lineup is a massive emotional boost for the Bolts.
• Crosby has a chance to tie an unbreakable mark in Game 7. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Hall of Famer Mike Bossy is the only player to record four game-winners in a single series. The Islanders sniper extraordinaire delivered the daggers in the 1983 conference finals against the Boston Bruins. Crosby so far has clinched Games 2, 3 and 6 for the Penguins. No one should be surprised if he finds a way to seal the deal again one more time.