UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Following the Lightning’s Game 6 loss to the Islanders Wednesday at Nassau Coliseum, coach Jon Cooper shrugged off the pressure of his team’s first do-or-die elimination game in more than three years.
No one has played more hockey over the past calendar year than Tampa Bay, he said, and the moxie the team showed over its past six playoff series has it ready for the moment it faces Friday night, Game 7 at Amalie Arena with its season on the line.
“All these games we’ve played,” Cooper said, “it’s prepared us for times like this, or it should have.”
The Lightning’s 12-0 record following a loss the past two postseasons is remarkable but would mean little if they can’t rebound another time against the Islanders to advance to their second straight Stanley Cup final.
“I’m so confident in just the way that they prepare, the way they play, the way they battle for each other,” Cooper said. “They really are a team that played for each other and really look at these special moments and say, ‘How often are we going to get these?’ and to embrace them, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
“So, yes, we love the stat. It shows that the guys dig their heels in in these situations. But we’ve still got to go out there and play the game.”
The hard-fought semifinal series has been a great example of how the tide can turn game to game, period to period, even shift to shift. The Islanders rebounded from a humiliating eight-goal loss in Game 5 and erased a two-goal, second-period deficit before winning 68 seconds into overtime.
Tampa Bay lost its forechecking game, one of the team’s strengths, and allowed the Islanders to play in the Lightning zone for most of the third period. Were they sitting back too much trying to protect a lead? Maybe, but they had been solid holding third-period leads, entering the game 37-1 this season when leading after two periods.
“Whatever situation happens, I think we might have a little reaction to it, but then we’re able to move on from it and learn from it and get past it,” Lightning forward Barclay Goodrow said. “Whether it’s a call we think we might have not gotten or losing the game like we did last night, I think we’re able to move past it.”
The Lightning certainly were affected by playing a man down after losing star forward Nikita Kucherov on his first shift of the game. Kucherov took an uncalled cross-check to the lower back from Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield and did not return. Cooper did not have an update when asked Thursday about Kucherov’s status for Game 7.
Kucherov has been the playoff’s top offensive player. He leads all skaters with 27 points this postseason, plays an essential role on the Lightning power play, and his presence on the ice alone makes for a tougher task for opposing defenses.
Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said the key to Game 7 will be trusting what’s gotten this team to this point. Part of that is pushing the puck north, utilizing the forecheck, winning puck battles and making an opponent feel uneasy in its own zone.
“I think we’ll look to simplify out of our zone a little bit more and play a little faster sooner through the neutral zone,” McDonagh said. “Spend a little bit more time in the O-zone and not necessarily just for creating offensive chances, but just sustain pressure and making them have to waste energy within a shift and defend a little bit more. And that can slowly start to create some momentum that way for our group.”
There is a uniqueness to playing in a Game 7. As a member of the Sharks, Goodrow won two Game 7s in the 2019 postseason before San Jose lost in the Western Conference final to eventual Cup winner St. Louis. He scored a Game 7 overtime winner in the first round that year.
“I think you just need to trust the system, trust the game plan, that it’s going to put you in situations to win. When it comes down to Game 7, one game, winner-take-all, it’s about being on top of things, all the details and everything like that, so it’s gonna be fun. I know we’re looking forward to going back home and getting the job done there.”
The Lightning haven’t won a Game 7 since beating the Rangers in the 2015 Eastern Conference final. Since then, they’ve had two Game 7 losses in the conference final, falling to the Penguins in 2016 and the Capitals in 2018. Against a Washington team coached by current Islanders coach Barry Trotz, the Lightning had a 3-2 series lead and lost Game 6 on the road before dropping Game 7 at home.
“We’ve been together as a group for quite a while here, some guys longer than others,” McDonagh said. “And you go through a lot of ups and downs in those years together. And it’s not always going to go picture-perfect like you dream about it or want it to. And that’s the beauty of a team sport. It’s sticking together and keep pulling in the same direction going through the lows as a group — just understanding what our main goal is at the end here and all the battles and the fights that you have to go through in order to give yourself that opportunity.”
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