Lightning One Strike Away From Stanley Cup Final Berth

Entering tonight’s Game 6 (8 p.m., ET) matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Tampa Bay Lightning have a chance to close out this best-of-seven series at home and return to the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year. Standing in its way, however, is the monumental task of beating the Penguins in an elimination game.

The Lightning are coming off the heels of a Game 5 overtime win that epitomized a lot of what is at the very essence of the NHL playoffs. Whether it was hit posts, lead changes, big saves, or physical play, Game 5 had a bit of it all. Ultimately, the Lightning would prevail, and put the Penguins on the brink of elimination with a 4-3 overtime victory.

Against Brink of Elimination, Sullivan Taps Murray for Game 6

In a decision that has been questioned by many (and as we know, hindsight is always 20/20), Penguins coach Mike Sullivan made the decision to start goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury over 21-year-old Matt Murray. While some question Sullivan’s decision after a Game 5 loss, it is easy to understand why Sullivan would have turned to Fleury in Game 5. After all, Fleury has been the Penguins’ starter until a late season concussion sidelined him. Fleury is popular with his teammates, has backstopped this team to a Stanley Cup in 2009, and it is possible that Sullivan believed that putting Fleury back into the starting role may invigorate a Penguins team that was coming off a Game 4 loss in Tampa. Fleury also looked sharp in his limited appearance in Game 4, as the Penguins mounted a comeback attempt that fell short, in a 4-3 loss.

On the other hand, Murray has been the goaltender that the Penguins have ridden through the first two rounds of the playoffs and into the Eastern Conference Final. Fleury admittedly did not play very well in Game 5, giving up four goals on the last 14 shots he faced, and Sullivan has just announced that Murray will start in Game 6. There are some that say that having turned to Fleury, Sullivan could not go back. Others have called for Murray, the one that arguably got the Penguins here. If the Penguins lose this game, the decision to start Murray in Game 6 will be dissected repeatedly. Of course, the Penguins hope that post-mortem never takes place.

Lightning Have Opportunity for Back-to-Back Stanley Cup Final Appearances

Tonight’s Game 6 marks the opportunity for the Lightning to accomplish the rare feat of returning to the Stanley Cup Final two years in a row. The last teams to do it were the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008 and 2009 (even rarer that it was the same two teams returning to the final round). In getting to this point in the playoffs, the Lightning has overcome numerous challenges.

Whether it was Anton Stralman’s broken leg, Steven Stamkos’ blood clot, or Ben Bishop’s lower body injury (amongst other injuries along the way), this Lightning team has gone further than many thought it would. The depth of this team has been on display in these playoffs, as players like Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan, and Jason Garrison, have taken on increasing roles when in shorthanded situations and in the absence of three of the Lightning’s cornerstone players. Perhaps, most importantly, Andrei Vasilevskiy enters tonight’s game with a 3-2 record in the series, after stepping in to relieve the Vezina trophy finalist, Bishop, after a series-changing injury.

Elimination games like tonight’s Game 6 are historically far from a walk in the park. Take, for instance, last year’s 2015 Eastern Conference Final, when the New York Rangers entered Amalie Arena for a Game 6 matchup with the Lightning with its own backs against the wall. Down 3-2 in the series to the Lightning, the Rangers prevailed 7-3 to send the game back to Madison Square Garden for Game 7. The Lightning, of course, would eliminate the Rangers  2-0 and move on to the Stanley Cup Final, but not after experiencing the uncertainty of playing Game 7 in a hostile road environment. For a Lightning team made up of almost the entire roster that was part of last year’s Eastern Conference Final, the Lightning has the benefit of having been in this situation before.

Ultimately, regardless of whether it is Murray or Fleury in the Penguins’ net for Game 6, the Lightning will be up against a Penguins team fighting for its playoff life.