TAMPA, Fla. – Steven Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning found a way to keep their first-round playoff series against Pittsburgh alive, playing with a sense of urgency that was absent in falling to the brink of elimination against the Penguins.
The challenge is to do it again in Game 6 on Monday night, with another Lightning victory sending the Eastern Conference matchup back to Pittsburgh for a seventh game on Wednesday night.
The visiting team has won four consecutive games in a series the Penguins lead 3-2 after being trounced 8-2 at home in Game 5 on Saturday.
The Lightning return home after a road win for the second time, and coach Guy Boucher senses a different mindset among his players for Game 6 than existed before Game 3 in Tampa.
“After we won in Pittsburgh the first time, I felt the guys were happy to have won a game, relieved of something,” Boucher said after practice Sunday.
“That’s probably the worst state to be in because you’ve done nothing for the next game yet and you already feel some relief,” the first-year coach added. “There is no relief in the playoffs. It’s every second counts, every play will count. It’ll be harder tomorrow than it was last game. We always say the easiest day was yesterday, it certainly won’t be tomorrow.”
The Penguins already have shown ability to put lopsided losses behind them, bouncing back from a 5-1 in Game 2 to win the next two on the road.
“I think I’d rather lose 8-2 than lose in triple overtime or something,” Pittsburgh’s Arron Asham said. “No one was happy with the outcome. We gave up the first goal and it just deteriorated from there. That’s the way it goes. That game is behind us.”
Stamkos scored the first two playoff goals of his career and also had an assist to pace the Lightning’s offensive explosion in Game 5. Simon Gagne and Pavel Kubina also had two goals apiece for Tampa Bay, which also got a strong performance from goalie Dwayne Roloson.
The team scoring first has won each game in the series.
“Obviously it’s not the way we wanted it to happen. We know how important the first goal has been in the series. They got one, and then two quick, and then after that we kind of stopped playing,” Pittsburgh’s Maxime Talbot said. “Unacceptable in the playoffs.”
That’s the same way the Lightning felt following losses at the St. Pete Times Forum in Games 3 and 4. They rallied from 2-0 deficits in both but lost the third game when the Penguins needed just 31 seconds to an answer a tying goal and lost the other in two overtimes.
Outshot 159-111 through the first four games, Boucher encouraged his players to shoot more in hopes of creating more opportunities around the net in Game 5.
It worked. Four of Tampa Bay’s goals came on rebounds.
“That’s how they’ve been. They always keep a lot of guys around the net for screens or tips, and it seemed like (Saturday) everything came back to them and they were able to put them back into the net,” said Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who was lifted after allowing four goals in 14 shots.
“A good thing about the playoffs, whether it’s 1-0 or it’s like (Saturday), it’s still just one loss and we still have a chance to finish it off,” Fleury added. “I think everybody is going to forget about it as soon as possible.”
Still, Tampa Bay feels it has momentum.
And, Stamkos’ emergence in Game 5 was a confidence-builder for the 21-year-old All-Star, who was second in the league with 45 goals during the regular season.
The top pick in the 2008 draft was held without a shot during the overtime loss in Game 4, although he felt hadn’t played poorly and was on the verge of pulling out of a scoring slump that’s lingered since February.
After a torrid start to the season, Stamkos entered Saturday with just four goals in his previous 26 games—none in the playoffs.
“We just played with desperation and that’s something we’ve lacked the past couple of games,” Stamkos said. “Obviously, it was do or die.”
His teammates were glad to see him rewarded for perseverance and hard work.
“I think he’s been playing great this series and making some big plays and it’s paying off,” Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier said.
“I mean he’s really playing well. It’s definitely nice for him to get some results. … I think it’s going to help him for sure for Game 6.”