TAMPA — The Lightning are a team that stays even-keeled. They never get too high or too low, regardless of the outcome of games. They’re lodged in the process, and they trust their game plans and ability to execute them.
Coming off a remarkable Game 5 performance in which they dismantled the Islanders 8-0 to move within one win of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final again, this group is confident it won’t be looking ahead Wednesday night at Nassau Coliseum.
They know the fourth win of a playoff series can be the toughest to earn.
“That’s the only thing we’re really worried about,” defenseman Victor Hedman said Tuesday. “(Monday’s) game, it’s a big win for us obviously and 8-0, 2-1, 3-1, it’s still one game. We’re going into a building where we’ve won one, lost one. ... We’re sure we’re going to get their best, so we’ve got to raise our game to another level once again, and we’re super excited to be in this situation.”
The Lightning split their first two games of the series at Nassau Coliseum, and the crowd will certainly be booming for potentially the final Islanders game in the 49-year-old venue.
“This is an extremely tough building to play in and they play great there,” defenseman Luke Schenn said. “They’re going to look to rebound and we’ve got to look to match that play. They had a great game there against us last time in Game 4 (a 3-2 New York win), but it’s gonna be a tough atmosphere. It’s always tough to try to close out a series and it’s going to be hard-fought (Wednesday night) for sure.”
These semifinals have been about making game-to-game adjustments. In Game 5, the Lightning pushed the pace from the start, veering away from the methodical chess match the Islanders prefer to play. They pressured the puck in the neutral zone, created turnovers and utilized their speed to play a quick north-south game for which the Islanders were clearly unprepared.
“When you have guys skating, wingers flooding across the ice, breaking out of the zone, their forwards have to go with you,” said Lightning forward Alex Killorn, who scored two goals in Game 5. “They know you’re going and they have to come with you so it just makes it a more full game for them. And I think that’s when we’re playing our best. ...
“In our defensive zone when we could chip blocks and win those battles, win those foot races, we’re usually in a good spot.”
Playing an up-tempo game, the Lightning were quicker to pucks — winning most of the battles — dominated zone play and created odd-man rushes from Islanders turnovers. The Lightning also constantly created chaos in front of the net. They took advantage of six power-play opportunities, scoring on three, after netting just two power-play goals in the first four games of the series.
“We earned everything we got (Monday) because we played the right way,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “We had a game plan and we stuck to it. We didn’t do that in Game 4 for stretches so that’s how the game works, and now we expect their push just like we had our push. It’s going to be a great game.”
One advantage of being on the right side of a lopsided win is giving players rest down the stretch, and even without defensemen Erik Cernak and Jan Rutta in the third period, the Lightning’s biggest minute eaters received light work. Hedman played just 4:27 in the third, and a majority of his ice time came on the power play.
“You never sit here and say a team’s out of a game but when there’s 10 minutes left in the third period, I think everybody knew that with the way the game was going,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.” So anytime this time of the year when you can give the guys a little bit of a break, you have to. And it doesn’t come around that often. I don’t anticipate there being a game like last night but you get a break.”
The status of Cernak, who missed the game with an upper-body injury, and Rutta, who left the game after getting hit in the head by Islanders forward Mathew Barzal at the end of the second period, for Game 6 are uncertain. Cooper said he would provide an update following Wednesday’s morning skate.
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