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Must win? Lightning needs to strike in Game 5

Steven Stamkos hasn't had a goal since Game 5 of the Rangers series, meaning he has gone seven games without finding the back of the net. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Steven Stamkos hasn't had a goal since Game 5 of the Rangers series, meaning he has gone seven games without finding the back of the net. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Jun. 13, 2015

BRANDON

Must-win game?

Well, let's see. It's Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final. The series between the Lightning and the Blackhawks is tied at two games apiece. The Lightning is at home, and a loss would mean heading to Chicago in a 3-2 hole.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos says there are no must-win games unless a team truly has its back against the wall, meaning it has three losses in a series and is one away from having its season come to an end.

Technically, Stamkos is right. But that's semantics.

Let's get real. Really real. The Lightning cannot afford to lose Game 5.

So, is it a must win? Yeah, I'll say it. It's a must win. I don't see how the Lightning goes on to win this series if it doesn't win tonight.

"We want to win every game, obviously," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said Friday. "It's the best out of three now, and we've got to win two to go all the way. So (Game 5) is obviously an important game for us."

It's important all right. And the Lightning won't win Game 5 unless a few things happen, starting with winning more faceoffs, getting the power play and Stamkos going, and getting really good goaltending, whether it's Ben Bishop or Andrei Vasilevskiy in goal.

The last part — the goaltending situation — is the most critical for success and the most uncertain aspect of the Lightning's game. Tonight, either the Lightning plays a less-than-100-percent Bishop, who is battling some sort of injury that was severe enough to keep him out of Game 4, or 20-year-old rookie Vasilevskiy, who has started only one game since March 31.

That one start was in Game 4's 2-1 loss, and though Vasilevskiy acquitted himself quite well by allowing only two goals and giving the Lightning every chance to win, he's still a kid with little NHL experience.

So either an injured goalie or a green kid — not the best options when you're about to play the most important game of the season.

"We're going to play the guy that gives us the best chance to win the game, whoever that guy is," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "Is that gauged on a percentage basis of how healthy (Bishop) is? I don't know that I can say that. If Ben Bishop can play a game, he's playing."

Cooper swore he had no idea if Bishop could go tonight, and we probably won't know until game time.

Maybe the spotlight on the goaltending wouldn't be so bright if the best offensive team in the league could start producing more goals. It's always tough to score this time of year, but the Lightning's two losses in this series have come by identical scores of 2-1. Scoring one goal simply isn't good enough.

Stamkos is back in another scoring slump, showing once again just how long and grueling the Stanley Cup playoffs can be. This is his second slump of the playoffs, and it could not have come at a worse time, with only a couple of games left in the season. He hasn't had a goal since Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final against the Rangers, meaning he has gone six games without finding the back of the net.

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Meantime, Tyler Johnson, the leading goal scorer in the playoffs with 13, had a goal in Game 2 of this series. But that has been his only goal in the past eight games, lending credence to the whispers that he is not healthy. Also adding to that speculation is that he hasn't been taking faceoffs, so you might guess that he is dealing with some sort of hand, wrist or shoulder issue.

And speaking of faceoffs, the Lightning has been getting crushed in that area since Game 2 and needs to do better than 40 percent if it hopes to keep fending off the Blackhawks.

Then there's the Blackhawks, a team that finds itself tied with the Lightning even though it really hasn't played all that well. A lot of that has to do with the Lightning. Even Blackhawks forward Brad Richards, the former Tampa Bay star, said the Lightning has been way better defensively that anyone on Chicago imagined.

Still, Chicago's best players, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, have been so-so. Other than Kane for the first period of Game 3 and Toews for a spell in Game 4, the two have largely gone unnoticed.

You have to think that both eventually will show up. The Blackhawks have yet to play their best in this series, and they eventually will, you would think.

The Lightning has proven many, including me, wrong throughout the playoffs. Few gave it a chance to win Game 6 in Detroit in the first round. No one thought it would win Game 5, and especially Game 7, in New York in the conference final. Just when you think the Lightning is down and out, it proves to be alive and well.

But the Stanley Cup final is a whole different series, and these Blackhawks are a whole different animal. It just seems unlikely that the Lightning could lose Game 5, then go into Chicago, where the Stanley Cup and 18,000 rabid fans would be in the building, and win there.

So is tonight a must-win game? Technically, no.

But is it really a must-win game? You better believe it.

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