UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Of all the situations this Lightning team has emerged victorious from over the past two postseasons, they’ve never been faced with a decisive Game 7.
Now, after a 3-2 overtime loss to the Islanders in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup semifinals on Wednesday night, they look do-or-die in the face for the first time in some three years.
By the time Islanders forward Anthony Beauvillier intercepted a Blake Coleman pass in the Lightning zone and rifled a wrister past Andrei Vasilevskiy gloveside 68 seconds into overtime, prompting a drunken Nassau Coliseum party full of fans throwing beer and water bottles onto the ice, the momentum the Lightning had built heading into the night seems like an eternity ago.
That 8-0 rout in Game 5? Seemed like it was last week. Their 2-0 second-period lead on Wednesday? Seemed like days ago. But the Lightning were less than 10 minutes away from sending the Islanders into the offseason and turning the lights out on the Coliseum.
Instead, the Lightning head home for Game 7 on Friday night at Amalie Arena with their season and their dream of becoming back-to-back Cup champions on the line.
“It’s the best-of-one,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. “It’s two really good teams going at it, and you know we’re here for a reason. We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy task to go the full distance. That’s why you play to get the home ice, to play this Game 7 in front of our fans. And that doesn’t mean we’re going to take things lightly. We’re going to go out there and battle and have our best game of the year.”
The Lightning lost their best player, right wing Nikita Kucherov, after just one shift. And after watching the playoff’s leading scorer skate into the locker room hunched over in pain, they played one man down for the entire night.
That seemed to catch up with them in the third, as the Islanders spent most of the period pushing the Lightning back into their zone. When Scott Mayfield, the light-scoring defenseman who put the questionable check on Kucherov that ended his night, scored with 9:44 left in the third, New York seemingly had taken control of the game.
“I think just maybe they seemed to have a little more speed in the third than we did, they were a little quicker to pucks,” Lightning center Brayden Point said. “They capitalized on their chances.”
Point’s first-period goal gave the Lightning a 1-0 lead and gave Point goals in nine straight playoff games, one shy of Reggie Leach’s NHL record set in 1976. Anthony Cirelli’s breakaway goal with 7:24 left in the second gave the Lightning a 2-0 lead.
The Lightning didn’t have as much punch offensively without Kucherov, and the Islanders were determined to prevent Tampa Bay from having all the odd-man rushes that made Game 5 a lopsided Lightning win. The Tampa Bay power play was 0-for-3 without Kucherov.
“I mean, there’s no replacing Kuch,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who had his nose bloodied when he took a check into the boards from Mayfield at the end of the second period. “He’s had an unbelievable playoff for us. He’s so lethal out there offensively. On the power play, we had a couple looks. I thought (Ondrej Palat) filled in great. We had some good chances on that last power play. But yeah, it sucks to lose Kuch like that early in the game. Guys battled. We played short the rest of the game and gave ourselves a chance to win. It didn’t work out tonight, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.”
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper had no update on Kucherov following the game.
Over the past two postseasons, the Lightning have won each playoff series in six games or fewer. They haven’t played a Game 7 since May 23, 2018, a 4-0 loss to a Washington Capitals team coached by current Islanders coach Barry Trotz. The Lightning led that series 3-2 before dropping the final two games.
Even though they haven’t played an elimination game in three years, Cooper said his team has been here before. They had the chance to beat the Stars in five games in last year’s Cup final, and rebounded following an overtime Game 5 loss to lift the Cup after the following game. In last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, they needed an extra game to eliminate the Islanders in six. And they are 12-0 when coming off a loss over the last two postseasons.
“We lost games last year where we could have knocked the team out and we didn’t and we had to do it the next game,” Cooper said. “So we kind of treat it like that. We had put ourselves in an opportunity to knock them out tonight and we didn’t, and fortunately we have another opportunity, so we just have take advantage of that.”
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