PITTSBURGH – Lightning and heavy storms will roll into Western Pennsylvania Wednesday afternoon but they’re unlikely to match the intensity of a Game 7 matchup between Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay at 8pm tonight.
If you’re a believer in momentum, the series is trending heavily in Tampa’s favor. In a sense, the Lightning have already won two ‘must-win’ games by a combined score of 12-4 in Games 5 and 6. A third straight victory would guarantee Guy Boucher‘s squad a second-round date with Washington or Philadelphia.
Here are a few items to watch for in tonight’s finale:
Meeting of the Minds
We’ve devoted plenty of virtual-ink over the past two weeks to breaking down the tactical battles between Boucher and Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. With both teams winning three games, it’s hard to argue that either coach has trumped the other to this point.
Most of the playbook wrinkles have already been exposed. Instead, Game 7 will become a psychological battle.
On Bylsma’s side is experience. After also losing Game 6 on the road last year in the playoffs, the Penguins hosted Game 7 against the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs scored just 32 seconds into the game and had a 4-0 lead not even halfway through before coasting to a series victory.
After getting walloped by Tampa in Game 5 this year by six goals, the mood in the Penguins’ locker room was calm – one of ‘just a bad day at the office, we’ll be fine’. Another loss in Game 6 added a hint of nervousness to the mood though.
How will Pittsburgh respond tonight if they allow the first goal early? Will memories of last year’s collapse creep into their minds?
“We’ve been in this situation and lost,” Bylsma said after practice on Tuesday. “There is something to learn and gauge. I also know that every series and every game has its own separate emotions…Now we have a Game 7 back in our building. They won two games, have some momentum, and now they’re coming back into a building where they’ve had some success in this playoff series. Every series is different and you try to draw on your experiences.”
This is Boucher’s first appearance in the NHL postseason and he’s still learning how to effectively manage his team’s emotions. The Lightning have had success on the road this series and even simulated road conditions prior to Game 6 by staying in a local hotel the night before.
On Boucher’s resume is a Masters degree in sports psychology that he seems to be putting to good use. Boucher said on Tuesday that he would still not be surprised if Sidney Crosby made a surprise appearance, despite the fact Crosby has not been cleared for contact.
On the surface it sounds silly, but rest assured that Boucher has a method to his madness. By keeping the spotlight on a potential Crosby return, he forces Bylsma and his players to answer more and more questions about the rumors instead of focusing on winning Game 7.
As this series has progressed, holes in the Penguins defense have slowly been exposed – specifically, the third pair of Ben Lovejoy and Matt Niskanen.
In Game 4, Martin St. Louis played just over two minutes against the duo and the Lightning scored twice.
Bylsma did his best to rearrange the Penguins D-pairs in Game 5, but it resulted in disaster. New mates Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik stood flat-footed in the corner while Vincent Lecavalier stood wide open in front of the net on this goal:
A few minutes later Niskanen and Kris Letang lost track of Simon Gagne in a similar fashion:
Boucher has been creative with his use of St. Louis by lining him up alongside almost every forward on the Tampa roster in an attempt to target scoring opportunities.
Bylsma can’t hide Niskanen and Lovejoy. He needs to find a way for the two to play important minutes in order to keep the Penguins top four defensemen from wearing down. Bylsma will have the last change tonight on home ice, but with such little room for error he needs to be careful.
Who Will Be The Hero?
“There is a good chance that tomorrow someone is going to write that it came down to one play.”
– Dan Bylsma
Nine players on the Tampa Bay roster have Game 7 experience. Three of them (St. Louis, Lecavalier, Pavel Kubina) were a part of the Lightning squad that prevailed twice in this situation on their way to a Stanley Cup in 2004. Marc-Andre Bergeron and Dominic Moore were part of the Montreal team that upset Pittsburgh last season.
The Tampa player with the most points in Game 7 situations though is not one you’d expect: defenseman Matthias Ohlund.
Ohlund has 4 points in four career Game 7’s and just ended a multi-season scoring drought with an empty net goal in Game 2. Does he have another one in him?
With three Game 7’s, most of the Pittsburgh roster has been here before. The Penguins’ best clutch performers in Game 7 have been Mike Rupp (3pts in 3 games), Pascal Dupuis (4 pts in 4 games), and Alex Kovalev (6 pts in 6 games). Not only has Kovalev brought his ‘A’ game on the scoresheet, but his teams are an undefeated 6-0 in Game 7 over his lengthy career.
Kovalev has had a lackluster series thus far aside from scoring a big goal in Game 1. None of that matters if he can help the Penguins move on to round two tonight.
Notes and Quotes:
Bylsma discussing Game 7 mentality especially for players who haven’t been in one before:
I think from the outside looking in it would be somewhat of a mistake to think you get to a Game 7 and you feel its going to come down to one play. If you go into the game that way, sometimes you see the game where it starts and they feel each other out or no one looks to extend themselves or no one looks to make a mistake. You can feel that maybe by watching the game. There is a lot that goes into the game. There is going to be, everyone is going to have at least a handful of plays on their stick that might be the play that we talk about afterwards. There will be a hero. There will be a storyline for the winning team. But this game we be comprised of the same things of the other games we have played this year. You try to build in your team, this is how we are going to play, this is what you can expect, this is the plays that are going to matter. We have talked about that at training camp. We know that it is going to come down to this play. We have been working that way all year long as a team. We know that as players and when we play that certain way we give ourselves an opportunity to have no doubt about the way the game is played.
That is a real challenge for James Neal and Mark Letestu. Go out there with the confidence that our team is going to play a certain way. The game will be on your tape. Just like it is been there for the whole year long. We are ready to make those plays. We play the right way, we have that mentality and we stay with our identity someone is going to be a hero in our squad.
Guy Boucher on his penalty killing unit:
I’ve found sometimes we think we get momentum because of our penalty kill, and some of the games that we’ve killed penalties, we lose the momentum because we can’t get it back. I think it really depends on their frequency within a short span of time. If you get a lot of penalties in a row, it has a tendency – even if you kill them – it’s going to kill your offense and kill your momentum. So we got away from that. I think last game, it was a bit more spread out and we were able to get some energy from our penalty kill and quickly turn it back into some offense and some momentum. But it’s clear in a seventh game that we have to be out of the box. Even though our penalty kill has been doing well, you’re either giving momentum to the other team or you’re at least giving up some scoring chances, because I think most of their scoring chances last game came from their power play. If we can avoid that and continue to do what we’re doing five-on-five, we’re certainly giving ourselves a better chance.