TAMPA — The Lightning arrived home early Saturday afternoon, greeted by a throng of chanting fans who had gathered at the airport.
And as players and coaches honked their car horns in acknowledgment as they left, one thing was certain:
They don't want to get back on a plane Monday.
Tampa Bay, with a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Islanders, can ensure no return trip to New York with a win in today's Game 5 at Amalie Arena.
But the Lightning, which feels extremely fortunate to have won Games 3 and 4 in New York, knows it won't be easy.
Let's not forget how the Red Wings dominated the Lightning in Game 5 of their first-round series, Tampa Bay winning 1-0 to clinch it mostly because goalie Ben Bishop stole the game with 34 saves.
"One thing we have learned is you get the other team's 'A' game on those opportunities that you have to close the team out," coach Jon Cooper said. "We saw (that) when we played Detroit. They gave us everything we possibly had, and I'm sure that's going to happen (today)."
The Islanders believe they already have given Tampa Bay their best shot in the past two games, outplaying the Lightning for good portions of both.
"Probably our two best games of the playoffs, to be honest," Islanders wing Matt Martin told nhl.com.
Each time, New York held a one-goal third period lead. Each time, Tampa Bay found a way to force overtime and win. Islanders coach Jack Capuano called Tuesday's 5-4 loss in Game 3 "demoralizing."
Imagine how much Friday's 2-1 Game 4 loss stung.
"We've just got to fight through it," Martin said. "We can't be too frustrated.
"We don't have a whole lot of time to dwell on this one. Head out to Tampa and get ready for a must-win game."
New York has been the better team at the start of each game, outshooting the Lightning a combined 32-15 in the first period of Games 3 and 4. Had it not been for Bishop's stellar saves, both could have become ugly quickly for the Lightning.
"It says we've got to realize the game starts at 7 (p.m.), not at 8, I'll tell you that," Cooper said. "We've got to be better."
The encouraging part for the Lightning is that it tends to get better as games progress, showing no panic in any situation. Cooper said you wouldn't be able to tell by the mood on the bench if it's the first period or third period because of the calmness and confidence garnered through the experience of last season's run to the Stanley Cup final.
"They haven't raised the Stanley Cup. That's the only thing they haven't seen," Cooper said of his players. "But pretty much everything else. … That put us in the position we're in."
The Lightning played in 26 of 28 possible playoff games last season, which took its toll by the end. If Tampa Bay can finish off the Islanders today, it would have taken just 10 games to reach its second consecutive Eastern Conference final. The odds are heavily in Tampa Bay's favor. Teams that take a 3-1 series lead advance 90 percent of the time (261-28).
Said Bishop: "We have to go back and take care of business."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.