TAMPA, Fla. — Instead of empty lockers, their stalls at Amalie Arena included blue and black practice jerseys on a small hook for the final preparations before their season’s largest game, a test of will and stamina before them.
Instead of eulogizing the season, they spoke Tuesday about the chance awaiting them in Game 7, a simple message written in blue ink on a white dry-erase board behind them, a symbol of a season not yet dead.
"Team Meeting 12:30 pm"
No, the Tampa Bay Lightning aren’t buried in this Eastern Conference quarterfinals series. Yes, another growth moment has presented itself with a Game 7 matchup against the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday night at Amalie Arena, a meeting made possible because the Lightning picked one foot from a coffin and placed it on solid ground with a 5-2 blowout in Game 6 on Monday at Joe Louis Arena.
The yardstick to measure this Lightning season has already included many notable marks: The 108 points, the 32 home wins, the first playoff victories under coach Jon Cooper, the emergence of center Tyler Johnson as a ready-for-primetime star.
Now this group can grow a few more feet by surviving hockey’s ultimate gut check: The Game 7 experience, a walk on the wildest of sides.
"It’s more than a growth moment," Lightning winger Ryan Callahan said. "I think it’s a chance to advance in the playoffs. That’s the biggest thing. We know we have character in this room. I think we showed that in Detroit, going in there in a tough building and winning a Game 6, an elimination game. Now we get home, and we have a chance to move on."
Move on or not, the next day will determine how we remember this team.
This group can be recalled as one that had a fine regular season, the best in franchise history, only to fall short again in the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ opening round. If that happens, there will be a hollow feeling with how this campaign crashed down earlier than most expected, with curiosity to rise about Tampa Bay’s inability to advance past this stage in recent years. Questions would have to be answered.
Then again, this group can be recalled as one that swung back after being pressed against a brick wall following Game 5. If that happens, expectations will be high leading into another meeting with the Montreal Canadiens. Perspective gained from a rally against the Red Wings would be beneficial before another step is taken in their chase for the Stanley Cup.
"You’ve just got to take everybody’s best," Lightning center Brian Boyle said. "Going through that experience, it’s only going to help."
Don’t expect a rout Wednesday. Advancing will require a complete effort with multiple supporting parts. Tampa Bay must lean on grizzled postseason veterans like Boyle and Callahan, defenseman Braydon Coburn and center Valtteri Filppula to be grounding forces in what should be a crazed environment. They must receive a strong effort from goaltender Ben Bishop, who should have little room for error after posting a 2.18 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage in this series. Center Tyler Johnson, who has six goals and seven points in befuddling Detroit since these playoffs began, must continue to star.
Of course, scoring first would be huge as well. Doing so has served as a golden ticket of sorts for both teams in this series, with the owner of the first lead holding a 5-1 record. On Monday, the Lightning produced their best game since their Game 2 rout, and Johnson’s first crack of thunder was a large reason why.
"We’ve worked extremely hard to get ourselves in this position," Lightning center Steven Stamkos said. "But no one remembers what happened in Game 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 once that puck drops. We worked hard all season to have this opportunity to play this game at home. … We have that mentality that we were the best home team in the league for a reason, and we have to show that."
Showing it would represent more movement toward what Tampa Bay is trying to build under Cooper. In a way, this moment is a throwback to last year, when so many experiences were firsts with a young coach guiding a young team through the NHL’s grind for the first time during a whole season. This time, the Lightning prepare to handle a first unlike any other — a Game 7 — with a more mature perspective than the team that bowed out in four games last season. We’ll learn if the experience gathered to this point has prepared them for the task at hand.
On paper, it seems so. Then again, trying to read this series has proven treacherous. There’s a reason why neither team has won two consecutive games.