BRANDON, Fla. — Pressure has become the proverbial hot potato of the series in the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens.
Tampa Bay to Montreal: "You have it!"
Montreal to Tampa Bay: "No, you do!"
If the Lightning have their way in Game 6 on Tuesday night at Amalie Arena, then the hot potato will become mashed and the Canadiens will be sent on their merry way back to Montreal to enjoy the offseason.
But if the Lightning drop a third consecutive game, if the Canadiens roar back to force a Game 7 at the Bell Centre, then Tampa Bay might as well be holding the sun come Thursday.
"We don’t want to go back on a plane," Lightning center Alex Killorn said. "We don’t want to go back to Montreal for a Game 7. We realize what our play can bring to us in this Game 6, and we want to push it tomorrow night."
Yes, Tampa Bay wants nothing to do with a Game 7. Consider Game 6 as close to a must-win for the Lightning as possible, because face it, they have no desire to step foot in the Bell Centre again until next season.
For them, playing a decisive contest there would be like a mouse entering a lion’s den.
So Tampa Bay better play some mental tricks in the next 24 hours to gain the right frame of mind. The Lightning must treat Game 6 as their Game 7, with their Game 2 execution combined with their late fireworks from Game 3. They must serve as the aggressors and not fall into passive play to shut the door on a series in which the Canadiens have enjoyed renewed life.
"We’re not looking to knock them out in Game 7," Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. "We’re looking to knock them out in Game 6."
Cooper shared something more Monday that’s encouraging for anyone searching for a reason why the Lightning won’t play from their heels Tuesday. He said there was a genuinely upset attitude in his dressing room after Tampa Bay dropped Game 5 on Saturday in Montreal. This became a study in contrasts compared with the more low-key reaction after the Game 4 blowout.
The coach didn’t use the word "upset," of course. Instead, he said they left PO’ed about adding the Canadiens to the baggage they carried home.
The Lightning, so used to scratching from behind, are learning how difficult it can be to close after racing ahead. The right combination of discipline and aggression is required. That balance is understood through experience.
Frankly, results from the past two games should be little surprise. As long as the Lightning can finish the job, the recent struggle can become a positive development to add to their perspective as they advance in the postseason. Cooper has spoken about how much of their Stanley Cup Playoffs run to this point has been an experience in firsts. The current situation stands as another first-time challenge to overcome.
Still, they can’t allow the hot potato to burn them.
"For sure, they’ve got more pressure," Montreal coach Michel Therrien said. "We’ve been there. You’ve got a three-game lead, you’ve got the pressure to close. And the more it’s going, the more they feel that pressure. We’ve been there in the first round (against the Ottawa Senators), and the fourth one is the toughest one, because you’re meeting a team that’s really desperate."
Added Montreal winger Max Pacioretty: "There’s pressure on both teams. No matter which city you’re playing, in front of whichever crowd, it’s the playoffs. Everyone is watching. It’s the hardest trophy to win in sports, and it’s that way for a reason. There’s so much pressure to win each game."
Pressure can be a hard thing to quantify, just as momentum is difficult to capture in the same way. If momentum were so easy to maintain, then the Lightning would have won this series in four games after claiming the first eight contests against the Canadiens this season. If pressure were so difficult to overcome, then everyone in Montreal’s dressing room would have enjoyed a round of golf by now after facing a 3-0 hole.
Bottom line, the power of unseen forces in sports is dependent on the personalities in a locker room and the strength of a team’s chemistry. Strong groups use momentum to their advantage. Strong groups can overcome pressure. Weak groups fail to capitalize on momentum, and they crumble when the pressure fails to be marginalized.
The Lightning will learn what kind of team they are in Game 6, knowing full well that a Game 7 would be risky business for them.
"The toughest game to win is always the last game, and we realize that, and we’re ready to put the work in," Tampa Bay defenseman Braydon Coburn said.
"It starts with preparation. It always starts with preparation. You’ve got to prepare yourself the right way, and I think we’ve been doing that."
They better be ready. Or else the temperature in this series will rise to an uncomfortable level for everyone in blue.