Win or go home.
After an 82-game regular season and nearly three full rounds in the playoffs, at the end of tonight’s Game 7 only one team in the Eastern Conference will move on to play the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup Final. The Pittsburgh Penguins enter Game 7 after staving off the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6, and sending the series back to the Consol Energy Center for tonight’s contest (8 pm ET). The Lightning have an opportunity to return to the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year, while the Penguins look to play for the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2009.
Lightning Misses Opportunity to Eliminate Penguins in Game 6
The Lightning entered Game 6 with a 3-2 series lead and an opportunity to conclude the series with a win on home ice. From the first faceoff, the Penguins were dominant and playing at the sort of pace expected of a team with its back against the proverbial wall. After a big save by Andrei Vasilevskiy on Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Drouin put a puck past a sprawling Matt Murray to put the Lightning up 1-0 early in the first period. With Drouin’s goal, the crowd at Amalie Arena erupted and so did the Lightning bench. However, the buzz created by taking a 1-0 lead was quickly put to rest when Penguins’ coach Mike Sullivan wisely challenged a missed off-side call just before Drouin’s tally, and the goal was taken away.
The game quickly shifted in the Penguins’ favor and after a Phil Kessel power play goal late in the first period to put the Penguins up 1-0, the Lightning would never catch up. The Penguins would out-shoot the Lightning 26-11 during the first two periods, and carried a 3-0 lead into the third period after a Sidney Crosby goal with under a minute remaining in the second frame.
When the third period began, the Lightning played with grit and a sense of urgency that was lacking during the first forty minutes. The Lightning dominated play, outshooting the Penguins 19 to 8 in the third, and making it a 3-2 game before a Bryan Rust goal with just less than three minutes remaining put the game out of reach. Nick Bonino would add an empty net goal to make it 5-2 and send the series to a seventh game.
Despite the final score, one was left wondering what could have been had the Lightning played with the same intensity for 60 minutes that it did for the last 20.
Lightning No Stranger to Game 7 in Playoffs
When the puck drops on tonight’s Game 7, it will do so nearly a year to the day (May 29, 2015) that the Lightning faced the New York Rangers in nearly an identical scenario. After taking a 3-2 lead in Game 5 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Final, the Lightning returned home with the opportunity to earn a berth in the Stanley Cup Final with a win. However, during Game 6, the Rangers were dominant, defeating the Lightning by a score of 7-3, and sending the series back to Madison Square Garden for a decisive Game 7. After a deflating performance in Game 6, the Lightning put that game behind them and defeated the Rangers 2-0 to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
On the path to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning would play in two Game 7s (against the Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers) and one six game series (against the Montreal Canadiens), before falling to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.
As the Lightning enter tonight’s game, they must take the lessons learned in last year’s Eastern Conference Final, and use that experience to its advantage.
Moving Past Game 6 to Focus on Game 7
In order to win tonight’s Game 7, the Lightning must move past its disappointing showing in Game 6 and focus on the task at hand. If anything can be taken from Game 6, it is that the Lightning have what it takes to bring it to the Penguins, as was demonstrated in the third period. Andrei Vasilevskiy will likely get the call again in goal, while Matt Murray will certainly get the nod from Sullivan. With a Lightning team made up of nearly the same players that took to the ice at Madison Square Garden just under a year ago, the Lightning are a team that knows what it takes to win this sort of game.
Ultimately, tonight’s outcome will be determined by the Lightning’s ability to play sixty minutes of hockey at a Game 7 level, and put the frustrations of Game 6 far behind it.