TAMPA — Ahead of Game 6 of their opening-round series against the Maple Leafs down three games to two, the Lightning were asked Saturday at Amalie Arena what they learned from being in the same situation during last season’s Stanley Cup Final against the Avalanche.
Yes, it was the same situation, though with higher stakes. But head coach Jon Cooper said his team might be able to draw more from the Game 6 it played against Toronto in last year’s first round.
The Lightning won 4-3 on Brayden Point’s overtime goal, pushing the series to a Game 7 in Toronto, which they won to advance to a third straight conference semifinal.
Everyone remembers the excitement of Point’s goal, but some might have forgotten that the Lightning blew a two-goal lead earlier in the game, much as they did in Games 3 and 4 of this year’s series at home.
The Lightning led 2-0 midway through the game, but two goals in front of the net by John Tavares in the final minute of the second period gave the Leafs a 3-2 advantage heading to the third.
Nikita Kucherov scored a power-play goal through traffic to tie the score 9:20 into the third, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped several in-tight scoring chances in the final six minutes of regulation, and Point won it 18:04 into the extra session.
“You just can’t take home ice for granted,” Cooper said. " It’s a privilege, and at times, it can be an advantage. You just can’t take it for granted. We took that game in overtime, but we’re losing that game in the third period and we needed a 5-on-3 goal to get to overtime and ‘Big Cat’'s (Vasilevskiy) got to make some big-time saves or else that’s a short postseason for us.
“So, there’s a lot to draw from. And I think the guys understand that.”
The Lightning have talked, too, about their Game 6 loss in last season’s Cup final. They were able to steal Game 5 in Denver but fell behind in Game 6, and Colorado locked things down defensively in a 2-1, title-clinching win.
“We’ve talked about that,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. “I think we think that this is going to be Toronto’s best game that they’ve had all series. We expect them to come out and have their best game. So we have to elevate ours even more.”
Toronto is trying to alter its dubious close-out history. The Leafs’ core group built around Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have lost 10 straight elimination games, and the team has dropped 11 in a row dating back to 2013.
“We don’t want to end our season tonight,” Lightning forward Pat Maroon said. “We want to keep it going. So, whatever their history is, it doesn’t really matter. It’s on us, it’s on us as a group on what we need to take care of.
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“... I think, with experience, you treat it like another game, but also, listen, you never know when you’re going to get these opportunities again. And these are the moments people live for. ... We have that team-first mentality, and guys are willing to sacrifice anything just go out there and have that moment.”
The Maple Leafs have had success at Amalie Arena this season, rallying from third-period deficits in both Games 3 and 4 to win in overtime. Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said his team has embraced the road, where he said there have been fewer distractions than in Toronto.
“There’s far less going on when you’re the road team,” Keefe said. “All the players had dinner together last night all in the same place, as we did the previous time when we came out here to Tampa for each of the nights that we were here.
“And when you’re in these moments and you’re dealing with the different pressures and things that come with a playoff series, I think the more you can keep it internal in terms of what really matters, focus on what matters and what’s required of the team, the better. I think being on the road is an advantage in that sense here right now.”
Notes: The Lightning are expected to have the same lineup for Game 6, with Mikey Eyssimont, who scored a go-ahead goal in his first game back in Game 5, again on the third line. ... Keefe wouldn’t give any details about his lineup — and potentially bringing back forward Michael Bunting after he was a healthy scratch for Game 5 following off a three-game suspension — saying there were multiple injury situations that prevented him from revealing his lineup.
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