WASHINGTON — For the third time in four years the Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves facing one of the ultimate situations in the sport.
A Game 7 in the Conference Final with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line.
It is obviously a familiar situation for most of the core group as 11 players on the roster, as well as head coach Jon Cooper, have been in place for all three of these recent runs. They split the previous two Game 7s, beating the New York Rangers in 2015 on their way to a Final showdown with the Chicago Blackhawks, and losing a one-goal nail-biter in 2016 against the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Now they find themselves in a winner-take-all game on Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) after dropping Game 6 in Washington on Monday night. It was a brutally physical, electrifying game that saw Capitals goalie Braden Holtby pitch his first shutout of the season and the Lightning find themselves trying to chase a more desperate team for much of the night.
[Related: Braden Holtby dominated when the Capitals needed him most]
It was probably a disappointing effort on the part of the Lightning after winning three consecutive games to push the Capitals to the brink of elimination. To be fair, it is awfully difficult to beat any team four games in a row, especially when you get to this point in the season when only the best of the best are still left standing. But anytime you have a chance to finish a team and deliver a knockout punch you want to take advantage of that. Sometimes you can’t control the result. Sometimes no matter how well you play things are not going to go your way on the scoreboard. Stuff happens. But you can control the way you play and the latter part was a big part of Cooper’s post-game presser on Monday night, as well as the situation it leaves them in.
“We didn’t play with near the desperation they did,” said Cooper. “Was it a fairly even game? There is no question. But what were the hits, 39-19? Somebody was engaged and somebody was not. That is a choice, and you can spin this anyway you want. You can say, ‘well good for Tampa they were down 0-2 and they pushed this to a Game 7.’ Or you could say ‘wow they blew a big opportunity to close this series out.’
“In the end there is a Game 7,” he continued. “It is at home. If you said to me you just have to go 2-2 at home in this series and you are going to win it, we will take that. We won two on the road, now we have to go home and make sure we take care of business there. Shame on us if we don’t.”
While home ice is all well and good, it isn’t necessarily something that has been a huge advantage in these playoffs, and especially not in this series where each team to this point has lost two of the three games in their own building.
“I think if you look at the statistics in these playoffs, pretty sure the playoffs the road team has won more than the home team,” said Cooper, who was correct in his assessment of playoff records, where the road teams own a 41-37 mark.
“You have an advantage of home. you get to squeak your matches a little better, there is face-offs, there is 20,000 people pulling for you. If you’re going to give me a game, and I have no idea what the results are going to be, but if you’re going to give me a game I’d rather play it at home than on the road. They earned that during the regular season and now we need it. Now we need to use it to our advantage.”
Still, the question remains as to why the Lightning, the top team in the Eastern Conference that had just pulled off three wins in a row, played so flat at times in a potential close out game. Cooper was asked on Monday night if he thought his team was maybe relying too much on the fact it knew it had Game 7 sitting in its back pocket and thus didn’t have the same urgency as the Capitals.
“I don’t know, is that human nature? Who knows,” said Cooper. “I guess in the back of your mind you know it’s going to be there. But did our guys try and win a hockey game? They did.”
He continued: “But with this time of year with only three teams left with a chance to play for the Stanley Cup your urgency level, your determination level, they have to make you so uncomfortable, that is what pushes you through. There were times we played like that, there were times we didn’t. It’s so hard to win and this group has been through these games before. Maybe winning three in a row and clawing back into this series, we were on life support, maybe it’s taken its toll on us. Maybe we exhaled a little bit. But I will tell you one thing, I’ve been so proud to coach this group over the past five years, every time they have been pushed against the wall, they have pushed back. It has been awesome to coach them, we are being pushed again, and now it is time to push back.”
These two teams are very similar in a lot of ways, so it’s probably kind of fitting that they find themselves in this situation where one game decides who moves on.
They each have one of the top-two goal-scorers from this generation in Alex Ovechkin (Washington) and Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay), both of whom are still searching for their first Stanley Cup ring.
While the Tampa Bay organization has won the Stanley Cup once in its existence (and been back to the Final within the past four years) this particular core — which is an outstanding one! — still hasn’t done it. They, too, have been painfully close only to have it fall just out of reach. After losing the Final to Chicago in 2015, they came back the previous season and let a 3-2 series lead slip away against Pittsburgh after missing an opportunity to close out the series on home ice. They had a 3-2 series lead this time around, missed an opportunity to close it out again with a game that probably was not their best effort, and now find themselves in another Game 7 with a trip to the Final on the line.
Both teams have a ton of pressure to come through and break through the glass ceiling that has been sitting above them. It should make for an outstanding game on Wednesday night.
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub