TAMPA - It's becoming cliche to say "never count out the Tampa Bay Lightning" at this point.
They had a bumpy road against Toronto, but came out on top. They fell down 0-2 to the New York Rangers, but battled back with four straight wins. Then, when it all looked lost against the Colorado Avalanche, they got a late goal from Ondrej Palat to force Game 6 back home.
The Bolts haven't lost a game with elimination on the line since 2019, with their ability to close out a series with that much pressure on the line being the biggest reason why they're chasing a third straight Cup.
But they have to play two perfect hockey games to do it all again, and they haven't been down like this in the Stanley Cup final with this group.
After outshooting Tampa in four of the five games -- with Tampa losing the one game they did have the advantage in -- the Avalanche are definitely the favorites heading into the stretch run. With how tight the series has become, Sunday almost for sure will result in a one-goal game once again.
No more mulligans. No more rebounds. This is it. Win, and you've got a shot. Lose, and the streak is over.
“We still have to play like there's there's no tomorrow," defenseman Zach Bogosian said. "Obviously, there are certain advantages to being at home. But you’ve got to make sure that you go out there and execute your game plan the way we know we can.”
A total of 12 players in tonight's line played in Game 5 when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup. Most of that core is chasing its third straight, something that hasn't been done since the 1980s. Nothing seem to faze this group, and whether they're winning or trailing, they've got fight in them.
"There's a ton of guys in that room that have experience and I just think the key is to not get too high, not get too low," Bogosian said. "As cliché as it is to say, we just have to try to go out there, win your next shift and not look too far ahead."
If any team knows how to pull through in one of these games, it's the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I do have to marvel at what's gone on and how many times you can get kicked and get back off the mat," coach Jon Cooper said. "And that's why I think teams don't keep repeating because it's easy to walk away. These guys won't do it.”
Tampa has lost back-to-back games just twice in the past three seasons, with both occurrences coming over the past two runs. The focus, like usual, will be on Andrei Vasilevskiy, one of the calmest, most relaxed goaltenders you'll see in the sport. His incredible play in elimination games -- two or fewer goals in three of the four elimination games the Bolts have played in since the bubble in 2020 -- has been clutch beyond belief. He was a big difference-maker in Game 5, stopping 35 shots against an Avalanche group determined to win the game on home ice. Tonight has to be another one of those classic performances.
"Game days, he's usually pretty quiet, laser-focused," Bogosian said. "Generally, you try to stay out of the goalie's way most of the time on game days. He's an intense guy, just the way he goes about his business on game days."
Tampa will be without Brayden Point for the fourth straight game, with his status unclear for a possible Game 7. The Bolts, fortunately, have had incredible playoff runs from Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, with the team's depth coming in hot to fill in the gaps along the way. Even without one of the team's biggest stars, they've found a way to stay in it.
Neutral hockey fans love Game 7s. If we get that far in this series, we'd essentially have three with the way the Lightning have to play. Don't expect anything other than an all-out, balls-to-the-wall effort from this experienced Tampa lineup that knows dynasty status is just a step away.
Just ask Jon Cooper.
"You look at this series, was it meant to go six or seven (games)? Damn right it was. It's two damn good hockey teams."