TAMPA — The Lightning was in this exact same spot one year ago.
Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final. At home. Coming off a gutsy victory on the road in Game 5. A chance to close out the series and move on to the Stanley Cup final.
And what did it do a year ago?
It got blown out.
"Tough game for us," defenseman Andrej Sustr said.
Tough game? More like garbage juice catching fire. It was a hot, smelly mess.
The Lightning gave up five goals in the third period. Goalie Ben Bishop was yanked. Final score: 7-3, Rangers.
"We won such a big game in Game 5," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Monday. "I think the natural inclination was, 'Oh, we're going home. We're going to close this out.' "
Didn't happen. And it should have cost the Lightning the series.
Fortunately for Tampa Bay, the loss didn't ruin the season.
The Lightning got back on a plane, went back to New York and found a way. Bishop pitched a shutout in Game 7 to win the series and advance to the Stanley Cup final.
So it would be possible for the Lightning to lose tonight and still win the series. Last year proved it.
It's just a scenario the Lightning would rather not repeat this season.
"I think guys know what to do, and hopefully we learned from that last year," Sustr said. "And we're going to be able to close it out at home."
The Lightning pulled out Game 5 in overtime at Pittsburgh on Sunday night and has a chance to close out the series with a victory at home. It doesn't want to go back to Pittsburgh.
And you'd better believe last year's dud in Game 6 against the Rangers is on everyone's mind.
"I know we came up flat," Lightning defenseman Jason Garrison said. "We've got to make sure that's not the case (tonight)."
There's still work to be done.
"Yeah," Garrison said. "The series isn't over. That's the mind-set that everyone has to have. We've got to focus on (tonight). Turn the page from (Game 5) and focus on (Game 6) and put our best game together."
Oddly enough, despite being up 3-2 in the series, you could make an argument that the Lightning still hasn't brought its A-game. Even the three victories had warts.
It was outshot 35-20 in a Game 1 victory. It nearly coughed up a four-goal lead in Game 4's 4-3 victory.
And, in Game 5's overtime victory, it fell behind 2-0 and 3-2 and gave up two goals in the final minutes of periods — usually a recipe for a loss.
But the Lightning prevailed and now has a chance to finish off the Penguins. So far, in these playoffs, it has laid the hammer down when given the chance to close out the series. Up 3-1 against the Red Wings and up 3-1 against the Islanders, the Lightning has finished its business, winning each series in five games. The combined score of the two close-out games: 5-0.
"When it has been time to put a team away, we rose to the occasion," Cooper said, "and we're going to try to do that one more time."
Tampa Bay will have to do it against a Penguins team that is desperate and trying to sound a little cocky.
Without even being asked, Pens star Evgeni Malkin, who has mostly been a ghost in this series, pretty much guaranteed a Pittsburgh victory on Monday.
"I believe in my team; I believe in myself," Malkin said. "We're coming back to Pittsburgh for sure."
Well, yeah, even a loss sends the Penguins back to Pittsburgh. But I'm guessing Malkin meant back for a Game 7.
Not that the Lightning is cutting out that quote and posting it on a bulletin board.
"What's he supposed to say in that situation?" Cooper said. "Of course they're going to say they're going to win, and they should. They're a good team, a good, confident group, but we feel the same way."
Malkin wasn't alone in his confidence, though teammates admit that the Penguins have their hands full against a Tampa Bay team that is stunning everyone outside of Florida right now.
"If there's one thing we've learned against Tampa Bay, it's you can't take a second or a minute off against these guys," Penguins forward Eric Fehr said. "They're really quick strike, they've capitalized like a lot of teams haven't in the past. If we can just stay focused for a full 60 minutes, I like our chances."
Anyway, Cooper knows that it's goals and saves that win playoff games, not guarantees and trash talk.
"Look, you've got to win four, and we're a little closer to four than they are," Cooper said. "But you've still got to get four, and that's all our group is thinking about: Let's just get that fourth one."
It hopes to do so in Game 6 and not like last year in Game 7.