Welcome to the Rapture, Part V.
For 34 days, we have been bracing for hockey's version of the end times in Tampa Bay. Not just some vague notion of all-good-things-must-end, but actual 60-minute showdowns with the entire season on the line.
Three times, the Lightning fended off elimination against the Penguins in the opening round. Once more, the Bolts survived do-or-die against Boston in Game 6 Wednesday.
And now comes a fifth trip to the precipice and a chance to make hockey history if the Lightning remains standing by night's end.
No team in modern NHL history has ever made it to the Stanley Cup final after facing five or more elimination games. A few have come close. Several have actually won more than five elimination games in a single postseason, and a few others played their fifth elimination game after reaching the final.
But none have accomplished what the Lightning is attempting to do in Game 7 against the Bruins tonight.
"It shows the character of the guys," said forward Simon Gagne. "It shows how quickly guys who had never played in the playoffs have learned.
"It's not something we thought was going to be the case at Pittsburgh after that first game, but we learned quickly."
Is it talent? Is it persistence? Is it luck?
Yeah, it's probably a little — in some cases, a lot — of all those qualities and more.
You don't come back from a 3-1 deficit, you don't beat the No. 1 seed in a sweep, and you don't reach Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final without being a good team.
But there is a reason the Lightning has come so close to losing it all. And there is a reason so many of Tampa Bay's postseason games have come down to the final minutes.
This is not a team with a lot of margin for error.
Coach Guy Boucher has been preaching that from the time training camp began eight months ago.
When everything is clicking, when everyone is on the same page, these players look as if their names should forever be inscribed in silver.
But there is no way this team can coast. There is not enough skill, size, speed or strength to simply overwhelm opponents at this time of the year.
Which might explain why the Lightning is 7-6 in nonelimination games and 4-0 when the team's back is against the wall. The attention to detail has been strong in elimination games, and the willingness to battle has been evident.
"A lot of that is just because it's playoff hockey. And that's kind of our style anyway," said defenseman Mike Lundin. "We're not a team that's going to blow people out. We play real tight games. We have to make as few mistakes as we can.
"It started right away when we fell behind with Pittsburgh. For a lot of the guys who hadn't been there before, we had to learn real quickly how much pressure there was."
What's fascinating is the sense of calm on the ice. You're freaking out in the living room, and they're growing more relaxed. Of Tampa Bay's 11 postseason victories, five have been come-from-behind. They even lost two games when they wiped out 2-0 deficits.
"We got to experience it a little bit in that Pittsburgh series, down 3-1 and coming back. We earned that. We played some great hockey, determined hockey," said captain Vinny Lecavalier. "Same thing against Washington, where nobody believed.
"And now we have a chance to get to the Stanley Cup final. We've definitely earned everything, but we want to keep it going."
The question is where this attitude comes from. And how it developed so quickly for a team with so much turnover in the offseason and so little experience in the postseason.
Is it the moments when Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis and Pavel Kubina talk about the Stanley Cup title in 2004? Is it Gagne recalling Philadelphia's epic comeback against Boston last year? Is it Dwayne Roloson recounting all of the elimination games he faced with Minnesota in 2003? Is it Boucher complimenting Boston while deftly pointing out all of the reasons the Bruins should feel pressure?
"It's a whole bunch of things," Boucher said. "It's qualities that the players have or have built up over the season or the playoffs. We've got a family. I know that. The players feel really close to each other, and there's a lot of respect in that room.
"This organization as a whole has got a lot of quality people, and we love to be around each other. So I think that's probably our biggest strength."
And so the Lightning is back for another Game 7. Another elimination game. Another chance to prove this team's character.
Once more unto the crease, dear friends.
On the brink
The Lightning is the ninth team in NHL history to have faced five or more elimination games before the Stanley Cup final. With a victory tonight over the Bruins, Tampa Bay would be the first of those to reach the final. The teams with their record in elimination games and how far they advanced:
Yr. Team Rec. Round
'75Islanders8-1 NHL semis
'03Wild6-1 West final
'10Canadiens5-1 East final
'87Islanders5-1 NHL quarters
'09Capitals4-1 East semis
'92Canucks4-1 NHL quarters
'91Blues4-1 NHL quarters
'88Capitals4-1 NHL quarters