It might as well be Game Seven, the captain says.
It might as well be the final chapter.
It might as well be time to do, or time to die.
How important is it that the Tampa Bay Lightning closes out the New York Rangers in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals tonight? To Steven Stamkos, it is as important as survival. Forget the one-game safety net. No one should pass up a chance to win.
Think of it like this. The Rangers do not lose Game Sevens. New York has won seven Game Sevens in a row, and at the moment, they are all about one more try. That means the Lightning has to win another home game, or it has to travel to Madison Square Garden one more time.
To Stamkos, the choice is easy.
Win tonight’s game, and advance. Just that.
“It’s not easy,” Stamkos said. “It’s not easy making the playoffs,” Stamkos said. “It’s not easy getting this far. That’s why it’s the toughest trophy in all of sports. We have to realize how close we are and play like it’s Game Seven.”
Leading 3-2 isn’t as big an edge as one might think. Sure, the Lightning needs to win only one of its next two. But Game Six has belonged to Marty St. Louis, and Game Seven has belonged to all of the Rangers.
But one more win at Amalie – and the Lightning was the best team in hockey at home this year – will turn out the lights.
“We need to be at another level than we’ve been all playoffs,” Stamkos said. “We’re going to get their best, and we have to have our best.”
Increasingly, the Lightning’s best includes Stamkos. Oh, there for a while, it was all about Tyler Johnson, who still leads the NHL in post-season goals. But Stamkos has scored in four straight and seven of the team’s last 10. It has been a long time since fans wondered where he was and if anything was wrong with him.
The New York Post, in fact, called Stamkos the one player the Rangers must stop.
“I think it’s funny how it works, because the spotlight is on you so often that everyone expects greatness all the time,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “To become great, you do fail sometimes. And he’s great. But you don’t get there by just success. It’s the guys who fight through failure who rise to the top.”
As the Lightning realized in the Montreal series, however, it can be important to shut the door on an opponent in Game Six. Game Six is a team’s final hurrah in front of the home crowd, and winning it avoids a plane flight and a bus ride and a morning practice and hostile fans and enemy ice.
For Stamkos, it makes more sense to win now.