TAMPA — The Lightning plays its most important game in four years tonight. It's not a must-win game, but it's about as close as you can get to must-win.
A victory against the Penguins knots their best-of-seven series at two games apiece. A loss and the Lightning falls behind 3-1 and needs to win three in a row, including two in Pittsburgh.
The trick for the Lightning is to figure out how to play such a crucial game.
It wants to have emotion but without being too riled up to focus. It wants to play with urgency but without a sense of panic. It wants to play like it's still just a hockey game but knowing full well the outcome is critical.
And the Lightning will play with only a handful of players who know what it's like to play in such a game.
"Let's not kid ourselves. We have a lot of players on this team with no playoff experience whatsoever,'' coach Guy Boucher said. "It's a learning process we knew we would have to go through. … You can talk as much as you want about it, but until you're on the ice (in the playoffs) … it's very different.''
That why the Lightning will continue to turn to its players who have been in vital games — players such as Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis, Simon Gagne and especially goalie Dwayne Roloson, 41, who will appear in his 37th postseason game.
In 2006, Roloson backstopped the eighth-seeded Oilers to the Stanley Cup final. In the second round of those playoffs against the Sharks, the Oilers were in the position the Lightning is now, trailing 2-1. Roloson and the Oilers not only won Game 4, they went on to win Games 5 and 6 to take the series, with Roloson pitching a shutout in the sixth game.
What Roloson learned during that postseason run: celebrate the victories, learn from the losses, forget the bad goals and quickly move on to the next game.
"Teams that have succeeded in the playoffs manage to control their emotions throughout the series,'' Roloson said. "There are times to be excited, like after a win, but it has to be short-lived. When we won a game, it was like we won the Stanley Cup, but it lasted only until we left the rink. Then it was focus on the next game like it was a Game 7.''
Roloson has been solid in this series, stopping 99 of 105 shots. He isn't interesting in dissecting the six goals he has allowed or basking in any of the saves he has made. Roloson's selective amnesia — something most goalie possess — has kicked in.
"I'm fortunate that I've been around long enough to learn how to forget the last goal,'' Roloson said. "Because if you are thinking about it, then the next shot is probably going to go in, too. You try to forget it and just get ready for what's ahead. That's all that matters — what's next?''
What's next for Roloson and the Lightning is the biggest game this franchise has played since 2007.