Well, it's going to have to do it the hard way. Of course, it is. After all, that's how the Lightning does things. The hard way. It's never comfortable unless it's uncomfortable. It never plays its best until the circumstances are at its worst. And the Lightning's situation just got a whole lot worse. If the Lightning wants to take a second consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup final, it will first need to take an unexpected and dreaded detour. Tampa Bay is going to have to go to Pittsburgh and beat the Penguins on their home ice Thursday night. If it plays like it did in Tuesday night's 5-2 loss in Game 6, don't count on it. That do-or-die Game 7 is now necessary all because the Lightning couldn't seal the deal on its own ice Tuesday night. It's a loss that might keep the Lightning tossing and turning all summer long. And that summer could start as early as Thursday night if Tampa Bay can't muster a better performance than it did Tuesday.
"We got to be better than that," Lightning center Tyler Johnson said.
Call it flat. Call it uninspired. Call it what you will. But be sure you call it this: unacceptable. The Lightning lost Game 6 because it deserved to lose Game 6.
Yes, there was another team on the ice, a Penguins team loaded with talent, a Penguins team that played with determination and desperation as if its season was on the line. Which it was.
But that doesn't completely excuse a Lightning team that lacked the necessary urgency and energy to close out a series that was there for the taking.
Really, Lightning? That's all you have? That's the best you could do? A trip to the Stanley Cup was a mere 60 minutes away in the comforts of your own house and you played most of the night like it was a meaningless game in November, not an elimination game in May?
"They were a desperate hockey team and we didn't match that," Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said. "We lose an opportunity there."
Tampa Bay had four shots on goal in the first period. It had 11 shots through two periods. It took dumb penalties. It rarely tested Pittsburgh's third-string kid goalie who was playing the most pressure-packed game of his life. The only way Tampa Bay could have made life easier on Matt Murray was to hand him a soft blanket, a pillow and a warm glass of milk.
Does that sound like a team that wanted to get back to the final? Is that a team willing to do whatever it takes to win hockey's holy grail?
"They played better than us," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, "for two periods."
Those were the two that mattered. It wasn't until the third period, when the Penguins were up 3-0 and in cruise control, that the Lightning showed any life. By that time, it was way too late. Only when the game was lost and the pressure was gone did Tampa Bay put in the type of effort that it needed to win.
Look, it's not easy to criticize this bunch. The Lightning is missing MVP and goalie Ben Bishop. It has been without leading goal scorer Steven Stamkos for the entire playoffs. Without those two, no one gave Tampa Bay much of a chance to get even this far. It has overcome high hurdles and wide obstacles and more adversity than most teams can be expected to overcome.
But, see, that's the point. The Lightning has overcome all of those things. It has shown that it is capable of winning no matter who is missing and what is thrown at them. And that's what makes Tuesday night's effort all the more baffling and troubling. It had so much more to give. It would be a shame if this was the lasting memory for what very well could have been the game of the season at Amalie Arena.
"We have to understand that for 40 minutes, we (didn't play well enough)," Lightning center Brian Boyle said. "It's disappointing. . . . We need to regroup. We should be angry about this one."
Does this mean the season is over? Of course not. Tampa Bay has a knack of following up soul-crushing losses with thrilling victories. In fact, we saw this movie a year ago. The Lightning looked like it blew the Eastern Conference final to the Rangers by losing Game 6 at home only to win Game 7 with a gutsy performance in New York. It will try to do that again.
"It's a Game 7," Boyle said. "It's a great opportunity.
But it will have to play much better than it did Tuesday night. Otherwise, this is a loss that will go down as one of the most depressing in franchise history.