PITTSBURGH — The Lightning, as resilient as it has been, predictably exuded confidence leading up to tonight's Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final against the Penguins.
After all, considering all Tampa Bay has been through, making it this far without injured captain Steven Stamkos, and injured Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop missing most of this series, who would bet against the Lightning?
"I definitely think there's a calmness within our group and how we approach games like these," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "We know we have it in us. It's just a matter of finding that emotion and that energy."
But after surprisingly not bringing that energy early in a 5-2 loss in Tuesday's Game 6, blowing a chance to close out the series at home, Tampa Bay is dangerously close to letting its season slip away. Veteran wing Ryan Callahan said the Lightning can draw from its experience from last year's Eastern Conference final, when it beat the Rangers at Madison Square Garden in Game 7.
But Penguins wing Carl Hagelin, who played for the Rangers in that series, said Pittsburgh may be a tougher out.
"That game we didn't play good at all," Hagelin said of the Rangers, who lost 2-0. "It was one of those games where we had nothing. This is a different team. This is a team that really believes in one another and believes we can score a goal and be a threat offensively when we do the right things."
The Lightning is a different team, too. Bishop pitched a shutout in last year's Game 7 against the Rangers, but isn't likely to be available tonight due to a lower left leg injury suffered in Game 1; Andrei Vasilevskiy is expected to make his sixth consecutive start.
"I don't anticipate Ben being in," coach Jon Cooper said.
Stamkos isn't expected to play either. Stamkos has been sidelined since April 4 surgery to repair a blood clot in his collarbone. While Stamkos has continued to practice with the team, and physically feels like he could play, he's awaiting a decision on whether he can return while on a different regimen of blood thinners or get off the medication completely. Cooper said Wednesday that Stamkos' status hasn't changed.
The Lightning, which won two Game 7s in last year's run to the Stanley Cup final, has beaten the Penguins at Consol Energy Center twice in this series, including a 4-3 come-from-behind overtime win in Game 5.
But it'll have to put together a much better start than Tuesday's, when it was outshot 26-11 in the first 40 minutes. Teams that score first in Game 7s are 123-42.
"I definitely think that our start and our compete and our intensity is going to be key," Stralman said.
Stralman, who is 7-0 in his career in Game 7s, said these kind of games are what "athletes dream of and aim for," and it's important to not stress over it, just soak it in.
"I don't think you can play to your potential if you're not embracing it," Stralman said. "Just have fun with it, and enjoy it instead of putting a lot of pressure on yourself and all that stuff, You play at your best when you don't think too much and you just go out and play hockey like you have for a lot of years."
Said Cooper: "When the game is over, just walk by the mirror and look at it and say, 'Did you give it your best shot?' If the answer is yes, let the chips fall where they lie."
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