The Tampa Bay Lightning have been here before. They stared down a 3-2 hole in the first round, and missed an opportunity to close out the Eastern Conference Finals in six games but triumphed with a Game 7 victory.
Now the Lightning are again on the verge of elimination, and hope to thwart the Chicago Blackhawks’ attempt at the third Stanley Cup in the last five seasons in Game 6 Monday night at the United Center.
The Lightning gave up a 2-1 series lead by dropping the last two games, including Game 5’s 2-1 heartbreaker that marked the return of goalie Ben Bishop but saw veteran Chicago center Antoine Vermette score the game-winner two minutes into the third period.
The Lightning are now in danger of suffering a three-game losing streak for the first time all season, but head coach Jon Cooper expects his team to respond and force a Game 7 back home.
“We’ve gone from an inexperienced playoff team to an experienced playoff team,” Cooper said. “We’ve been in this position before. This team has found a way. That’s why we are where we are right now. We’ve been in so many different situations during this playoffs, whether we’ve been up 3-2, or down 3-2, we’ve gone through this now. People can’t sit here and say, the inexperienced Lightning. I think we’re the ‘Gamer Lightning.’ These guys have gamed out this playoffs, and I expect nothing less in Game 6 in Chicago.”
In order to push this series to the brink, the Lightning will need more of that offensive power that got them here in the first place. In all three of their losses to Chicago, they’ve been held to one goal and surrendered an early lead in the third period.
And during the wins in Games 2 and 3, Tampa Bay also saw top forwards Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov get on the board with a goal and assist, but otherwise they’ve been very quiet in the series.
Kucherov was pulled from the ice after smashing his shoulder into the goal post early in Game 5, and didn’t return. It’s listed as an upper body injury, but Cooper told reporters he expects Kucherov to respond just like Bishop did after he was hurt early in the series.
For the Blackhawks, Game 6 has acted as the moment of truth the last two times the Cup was on the line. Back in 2010 they dropped Philadelphia in six games, and two years went the same way with Boston. Though Tampa Bay’s gone 8-4 on the road during the postseason.
Chicago is focused solely on closing out the series as soon as possible, with the possibility of claiming the puck at home exciting but not acting as motivation.
“Whenever we answered questions going into a Game 6 with a chance to win the Stanley Cup — everyone asked, ‘Would you rather win on the road or at home?’ For us, there was no difference,” Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews said via the Chicago Sun-Times.
“We have a chance to do that [Monday] night. We want to take advantage of it.
“Obviously there’s a lot of buzz, a lot of excitement, a lot of things going on around the entire event. We’re just going to do our best as individuals to focus on our job as players and focus on the game and nothing more. None of that stuff is really going to help us achieve what we want to achieve. That’s where our heads are at right now.”
There’s no question where Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford’s head is right now. The 30-year-old endured a difficult stretch in Games 2 and 3, giving up seven goals, but in the last two he’s surrendered only two while saving 55 out of 57 Lightning shots.
Like Tampa Bay, the Blackhawks have also watched their top scorers Patrick Kane and Toews struggle in the series but the defense has made all the difference. Veteran defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson registed a game-best seven blocked shots in Game 5, and Duncan Keith came up with four.
Should Tampa Bay manage to break past Chicago’s defensive wall, Game 7 will take place Wednesday night at Amalie Arena.
Start Time: 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Live Online: A live stream is available at NBC Live Extra
Betting Odds: Chicago -1.5; over/under: 5 goals
Prediction: Chicago over Tampa Bay, 3-2