When the Tampa Bay Lightning take on the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Consol Energy Center Thursday night for the right to move on to the Stanley Cup Final, it will be the second time in two years that the Bolts have faced such a challenge on the road in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.
Last year the Lightning had the same obstacle when they had to face the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden in Game 7 of the ECF.
The situations are very similar. Both times the Bolts had a chance to finish off their opponents at home at the Amalie Arena in Game 6. And both times the Lightning laid an egg.
So it comes down to this very important game.
Last year, the Bolts faced very daunting odds when they took on the Rangers in Game 7 in New York. The Rangers had won a Game 7 six straight times heading into their matchup against the Bolts, plus the Rangers had never lost a Game 7 in New York.
Add to that, but the Lightning would also be facing goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who also had never lost a Game 7 matchup.
But the Bolts showed the hockey world that they could beat the odds, as the Lightning shut out the Rangers 2-0. That was the second straight time that goalie Ben Bishop had shut out the Rangers in New York, as the Bolts had also won Game 5 by a score of 2-0.
In that pivotal Game 7, perhaps the Lightning’s best player on the ice was former Ranger Ryan Callahan. No. 24 had missed the first game of the series due to an emergency appendectomy and had gotten better as the series wore on.
Callahan seemed to be everywhere on the ice in the game, and his determination was evident with his excellent play. That game was reminiscent of the game Callahan played in Game 4 versus the Penguins in this series.
In the series versus the Rangers, not only were the contributions of Bishop and Callahan huge, so were the performances of several other players.
Tyler Johnson had a big series, as he had four goals (including a hat trick) and five assists. Ondej Palat also had four goals and three assists, while Nikita Kucherov had three goals and four assists.
Steven Stamkos was hot as well, as he had four goals and three assists, while his linemate Alex Killorn had four goals (including the Game 7 game-winner) and three assists.
This year the Bolts won’t have either Bishop or Stamkos in Game 7. Bishop has been out since Game 1 of the series after suffering a lower-body injury, while Stammer has missed the entire postseason for the Bolts due to a blood clot issue he incurred late in the regular season.
Bishop might be able to go again if the Bolts advance to the Stanley Cup Final, while the situation with Stamkos is up in the air. For Stamkos to be able to play, he must be taken off blood thinners. So far, his doctors have not given the go ahead for that to happen.
*** Update: Stamkos will indeed play. No. 91 led the Bolts in goals this season with 36, which included 14 power play goals.
Both Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman of the Bolts know all about playing in the ECF. This will be their third straight year playing in the series that can propel a team to the Stanley Cup Final. Both played with the Rangers in in the 2014 ECF versus the Montreal Canadiens, when the Rangers won in six games.
Both came to the Bolts via free agency last season to join their former teammate Callahan, as the Bolts advanced all the way to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final last year.
So, who can head coach Jon Cooper of the Lightning count on in Game 7? As the Bolts well know, it all starts at the goalie position. That is why 21-year old Andrei Vasilevskiy has to come up big in front of the net, just like Bishop did last year in Game 7.
But his defense has to help him as well. On average, Vasilevskiy is facing nearly 40 shots a game in this series. That is far too many. Defensemen like Stralman, Victor Hedman, Jason Garrison, Braydon Coburn, Andrej Sustr, Matt Carle and Slater Koekkoek have to really help protect Vasilevskiy in the defensive zone.
Hedman has had a very good postseason overall this year (13 points), but in the last two games, he has not played well. Especially on defense at key times.
The Bolts have allowed their defensemen to help out quite a bit in the offensive zone in this series, but that does come at a risk. Especially when the Pens can get out on a break with talented scorers like Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin ready to take advantage of a defensive miscue.
The same holds true with the talented forwards that the Bolts have. Players like Kucherov (19 points), Johnson (17 points), Killorn (13 points), Palat (10 points) and Jonathan Drouin (13 points) can all put the biscuit in the basket with the best of them, but they have to play all 200 feet of the ice. That and keep turnovers to a minimum.
To win Game 7, all of the players on the Bolts have to play with the mindset that Callahan and Boyle play with each and every game. That is, battle like crazy in the corners and on the boards for loose pucks and skate every shift as hard as you can.
So who will be the hero if there is a victory?
Will it be Kucherov, who is the leading candidate for the Bolts in the Conn Smythe Award sweepstakes? No. 86 always seems to score his goals at critical times, especially late in the third period. That happened again Game 5 in this series, as he tied the game late and then saw his team win in overtime on a Garrison shot he assisted on that deflected off Johnson’s rump.
Kuch also had another goal in that key game.
Johnson has also shown the ability to come up big in the postseason, both last year and this year. The problem with Johnson, and with Drouin at times, is that both players get careless with the puck at times while trying to create a scoring play.
Killorn is a player to watch as well. It was No. 17 who got the Bolts back in Game 5 when he blasted a rocket of a shot to make the score 2-1 in Game 5.
The Pens had a 3-2 lead in that game heading into the third period. Pittsburgh was 46-0 this season when they had a lead going into the final frame. The Bolts made it 46-1.
Or will someone like Callahan, Boyle or Stralman come up big in Game 7?
But maybe the biggest player for the Bolts in Game 7 , beside Vasilevskiy of course, is Hedman. If Hedman plays like he did in Game’s 5 and 6, the Bolts will most likely lose.
But if No. 77 plays like he has for the most part throughout this postseason, then the Lightning have a real opportunity to win. He’s been that good at times.
The Bolts have always had pretty good success when they play in a Game 7. The Lightning are 5-1 in Game 7s. Their only loss was to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the ECF in 2011, when the Bolts lost 1-0.
The Lightning have only allowed three goals in the six Game 7 games they have played.
By the way, one of those Game 7s was against the Penguins in Pittsburgh in 2011. Goalie Dwayne Roloson shut out the Pens 1-0 in that series-winning game. Neither Crosby (concussion) or Malkin (knee) played in that game for Pittsburgh.
Sean Bergenheim scored the only goal of the game for the Bolts.
This is the fourth time the Bolts have played in the ECF, and this is also the fourth time the series has gone seven games.
When the Bolts won the Stanley Cup in 2004, Tampa Bay defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games in the ECF.
Bottom line, the Bolts have a pretty good history of coming up big in Game 7. Will it be another case of deja vu for the Lightning this time around in Pittsburgh, similar to what occurred in New York last postseason?
If that indeed happens, than the Bolts will be taking on the San Jose Sharks on the road Monday night in Game 1 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.