TAMPA — By now there are no more secrets. After six games over 11 days, the Lightning knows all the Capitals' habits , and the Caps know all the Lightning's.
To Lightning coach Jon Cooper the outcome of tonight's Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Amalie Arena is going to come down to one detail.
"A little bit of will," Cooper said Tuesday. "You have to will yourself for this moment."
The will to do whatever it takes to reach the Stanley Cup final — a hard check, a blocked shot, to not retaliate when you believe retaliation is in order, to stay within the game plan, to stay calm when something does not go right.
To Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, the stakes have never been higher as he plays for the first trip the Cup final in his career.
"This is the biggest game of my life," he said.
To Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, a second trip to the final in four years is going take one thing.
"We need our best game of our lives," he said. "That's what we have to do."
How can the Lightning do that?
"First period of Game 5, bottle that up and do it three times. We should be okay," Cooper said.
The Lightning played the best period of this playoff run that night, scoring twice and out-shooting the Caps 13-4. Since then, it has been all Capitals. The Lightning has not scored since Ryan Callahan knocked in a rebound 33 seconds into the second period of Game 5.
So how can the Lightning win tonight?
Duh, outscore the Caps.
And how can it do that?
Here are a few suggestions:
Shoot, shoot and shoot some more.
The Lightning had nine shots on goal over the final two periods in Game 5 and only 24 during Game 6, when it lost 3-0.
The Lightning had 59 shot attempts in Game 6. Problem was, 24 were blocked and 15 missed the net.
"That's not going to cut it," Hedman said of the 24 shots that reached Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "We got to get more shots on net. We have to get double digits every period. We got to shoot the puck more. We're passing up some opportunities. Their goalie made some good saves on some of the chances we had, but bottom line is we got to shoot the puck more."
Led by defenseman Brooks Orpik's six hits, the Caps out-hit the Lightning 39-19 in Game 6. The Lightning have to hit back like it did in Game 4 in New Jersey against the Devils. Remember Braydon Coburn's five hits that night? Remember Nikita Kucherov's big hit on Sami Vatanen? More of those, though no one is advocating for anyone to get hurt.
Still, the Caps game plan during their entire playoff runs is to out-hit the other team.
"We have to invest," Caps forward Jay Bagle said. "We're the more physical team, and we have to beat up on them."
Defenseman Matt Niskanen said it was not only the hits that played a role in his team's Game 6 win.
"I really liked how we were just in their face," he said. "Even if it wasn't a hit, we closed space really well."
Said Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi, "I think it's pretty simple. We just can't play the way we did (Monday). We have to respond to the physical play."
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The best players have to be the best players
A big night from forwards Steven Stamkos and Kucherov certainly will help. Same with goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
It is not always the big guns that make the difference in a Game 7. The fourth line can make a difference just as it did in the Lightning's Game 4 win. But Kucherov responded to the Game 3 loss against the Devils in a big way. Stamkos third period goal at Boston sent Game 4 into overtime where Girardi won it.
"We want to be that, but it's a team game," Hedman said. "You need everyone, but at the same time, we put the pressure on ourselves to be difference makers and we're playing a team that probably has the same mindset. It's going to be another close game, we know that. We need to be the difference-makers, but we need all 18 guys to come ready to play and do their jobs."
If you're feeling optimistic about the Lightning beating the Capitals Wednesday, here is the schedule for the Stanley Cup final, which will begin Monday in Tampa or Las Vegas. #TBLightning #GoBolts #TBLvsWSH #ALLCAPS @TB_Times #VegasBorn https://t.co/3MgsaGJZGD— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) May 22, 2018
Of course, some puck luck, like Callahan's Game 5 goal, is welcomed. Same with the tripping penalty that could have been called on Stamkos in Game 5 but was not as he forced a neutral zone turnover that led to Ondrej Palat's goal.
Whatever it takes to win and advance.
It has been a series of swings. The Caps won the first two. The Lightning won the next three. Momentum? It has been fleeting.
It is Game 7.
"It's one game," Cooper said. "It's like you play the first six for fun. Now this one means a lot."
Contact Roger Mooney at [email protected] Follow @rogermooney50