The Tampa Bay Lightning play their 100th hockey game of the 2010-2011 NHL season tonight, but none of them have come close to the stakes of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. A win over the Boston Bruins at TD Garden advances the Lightning to the Stanley Cup FInal to play the Vancouver Canucks. A loss ends their season just one step short of the league's biggest stage and deals Lightning fans their first real taste of playoff heartbreak. The drama starts a little after 8:00pm Eastern time, with national TV coverage on Versus.
With a win tonight, Tampa Bay would achieve an interesting bit of hockey history, as John Romano explains in this morning's St. Petersburg Times. They would become the first team in modern NHL history to survive at least five elimination games and reach the Cup final. So how has this playoff run turned into a test of survival? Romano says:
Is it talent? Is it persistence? Is it luck?
Yeah, it's probably a little - in some cases, a lot - of all those qualities and more.
You don't come back from a 3-1 deficit, you don't beat the No. 1 seed in a sweep, and you don't reach Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final without being a good team.
But there is a reason the Lightning has come so close to losing it all. And there is a reason so many of Tampa Bay's postseason games have come down to the final minutes.
This is not a team with a lot of margin for error.
Coach Guy Boucher has been preaching that from the time training camp began eight months ago.
When everything is clicking, when everyone is on the same page, these players look as if their names should forever be inscribed in silver.
But there is no way this team can coast. There is not enough skill, size, speed or strength to simply overwhelm opponents at this time of the year.
Fortunately, the Lightning have become accustomed to living on the edge. They survived a Game 7 on the road in the first round against Pittsburgh, and as you saw earlier in this StoryStream, they know what's coming tonight in Boston. Plus as you may already know, Tampa Bay has never lost a seventh game (3-0) and goalie Dwayne Roloson has never lost an elimination game (7-0).
But it would be foolish to rely on trends and your own experience to carry you through a Game 7. Especially when the Bruins also won a Game 7 on home ice in the first round, and to top that, they pulled the game out in overtime against their absolute blood rivals from Montreal. While there have been some very unkind losses in Boston's recent playoff past (their last three postseason eliminations were all in Game 7's), coach Claude Julien doesn't see a need to get tense:
"We've got a Game 7, it's at home, we're one game away from going to the Stanley Cup Final and the opportunity's in front of us. So, why shouldn't we be excited?
"This is what playoffs is all about. I guess if you had told us at the beginning of the year that we had to win one game to go to the Stanley Cup Finals, we would be excited about it, and that's where we're at right now."
It's been an unpredictable series, and maybe the only thing to expect tonight is the unexpected. Who will be the hero?
- Martin St. Louis' two goals on Wednesday night tied him for the NHL lead in playoff goals with 10 (along with Boston's David Krejci, who had a hat trick in Game 6). The Lightning record for most playoff goals in a season is 12, shared by Brad Richards and Ruslan Fedotenko in 2004.
- Sean Bergenheim is again a game-time decision for Tampa Bay with his groin injury. (Nate Thompson saw a drastic increase in ice time with Bergenheim missing Wednesday night's game.) Pavel Kubina is still out with a concu -- oh, sorry... upper-body injury.
- Lightning winger Simon Gagne scored the game-winning goal for the Philadelphia Flyers in a Game 7 against the Bruins in last year's conference semifinals.
- The team that has won the faceoff battle has won all six games in the series. The Lightning held a 34-31 advantage in Game 6.