TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Lightning’s charter plane landed home just before 2 p.m. on Tuesday, but before the players hopped into their vehicles and drove home to prepare their minds for one of the most important games of their life, they were summoned for a quick team meeting. They were quiet as they filed into the Sheltair Air Center and dropped their bags, a mere 15 hours after they lost Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Washington Capitals on Monday night.
“Oh, we weren’t saying goodbye,” Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper said sternly, opting not to divulge what was said in advance of Wednesday night’s Game 7. “We’ll answer that question tomorrow.”
There was not much left to say after Monday night’s dud, a 3-0 loss that left Cooper criticizing his team for not matching Washington’s intensity. But if there was anything that gave him comfort as he flew home with his players on Tuesday, it was that they have found a way to respond to dire situations all series long. And this roster, which entered Monday night having logged more than 1,400 playoff games combined, fully comprehends the stakes of Wednesday night’s game. It will mark the third time in four seasons that Tampa Bay has played a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Lightning have been on both ends of the spectrum under Cooper. Tampa took Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on the road over the New York Rangers in 2015. The following spring, it lost out on a chance to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals again when it lost in Game 7 of the conference finals at Pittsburgh. What was eerily similar to those campaigns and this year’s run was that Tampa Bay squandered an opportunity to close both series out early and lost in Game 6 of each.
“I’ve been on both sides in Game 7’s, but these are the games you want to play. We’re one game away from playing for the Stanley Cup and that gets you going right away when you think about it,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. “We’ve got to make sure that we get some good rest today and get ready to come to work tomorrow. That’s the bottom line.”
Only Pittsburgh (39) has won more playoff games than Tampa Bay (36) since 2015, which is even more remarkable given that the Lightning missed the playoffs last year. It was a season marked by turmoil; captain Steven Stamkos missed most of the year with a knee injury, while goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy endured a steep learning curve as he transitioned as the team’s No. 1 option in net. This year was quickly tabbed as a redemption opportunity for a franchise that has grown accustomed to contending for championships.
It has all led to Wednesday night’s decisive game at home — “It’s like we played the first six for fun,” Cooper quipped on Tuesday — and whether the Lightning advance or not will largely depend on elevated effort. Tampa Bay has arguably been outplayed by Washington in every game but Game 3 in this series, but on Monday night it was simply out-hustled for long stretches. Cooper’s team wasn’t as physical as it usually is, nor was it as effective in creating as many quality scoring opportunities as the Capitals.
Tampa Bay has not scored in 99 minutes, dating back to the second period of Game 5. The power play had just one opportunity and squandered it in Game 6. Turnovers were abundant. Vasilevskiy was forced to keep his team in position to win, until it wasn’t.
The outcome felt much like those two Game 6 losses in the conference finals against New York and Pittsburgh in consecutive years, which led to different outcomes in Game 7. Tampa Bay’s players knew what they had to do as they left the airport for their homes on Tuesday afternoon. A few fans lined the parking lot and held up jerseys and signs as the players sped by in their cars. A few honked. It was far from a heroes’ welcome home. It will only feel like that if Tampa Bay wins on their home ice on Wednesday night.
“That’s what you have been fighting for the whole season, to come into these moments and have home ice, to have that little bit of an advantage,” Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman said. “But just like experience, I don’t think you can feel comfort in that or lean against that and say, ‘This is going to be fine, just because we’re here.’”