When the skies are at their darkest, they are at their best.
When they are backed into the corner, or backed up on the ledge, they are their most dangerous.
Call them Team Desperation. The players of the Tampa Bay Lightning, it seems, enjoy a little bit of adversity.
It is the biggest secret of the sport, that fuel called desperation. It drives this team, it focuses them, it unifies them. When they have that hollowed-out feeling, when their throats are dry and their palms are wet, that is when they look the most like a champion.
Desperation. It is the driving force of the Lightning. Oh, when they get comfortable, when they exhale, then they can trip up. But when they are hungry, and focused, and driven, they are a force to contend with.
In every sport, coaches will talk about desperate teams and desperate times. But other sports are more about scripted plays and coaches’ grand schemes. The beauty of hockey is that it is an ad-lib, free-flowing work of art, and because of it, it relies more on emotion than most sports. It is a jazz concert. It is a free-style rap. And more than most sports, it depends on an athlete coming back after being pushed into a corner.
Look at the post-season of these Lightning. It lost the first game to Detroit, which made it more desperate. So it won Game 2 easily. Then it fell behind three games to two, and already it was facing elimination. What could be more pressurized that that? And the Lightning came back with five straight wins.
Yet, behind 3-0, desperation fell to the Montreal Canadiens, who won two in a row and seemed to be about to get back into the series. Desperation. And the Bolts won.
Then came the Rangers, and the Lightning fell behind 1-0. Desperation. So Tampa Bay rallied and took a 3-2 lead. The Rangers, with desperation of their own, won and forced the game back to New York, where history was on their side. And a desperate Lightning team won again.
Now there is this series. The Lightning loses the first game, and it gets it goaltender hurt, and the Chicago Blackhawks are at a firing range. Desperation. So Tampa Bay wins two.
So the question bears asking. Is a 2-1 lead in the Stanley Cup Finals desperate enough for this team?
Throughout the playoffs, said Lightning coach Jon Cooper, that sort of desperation has been a fertilizer for the growth of a young hockey team. And it is true that Tampa Bay seems like a better hockey team now than it did against Detroit.
“I think at some point, the ebbs and flow of the playoffs, teams are going to have success and some are going to struggle,” said Cooper. “It’s the ones that consistently have success that are going to move on. I truly believe we’ve grown as a team through some of our struggles. You just think of last night’s game. We’re in a pretty hostile environment. It’s a 1-1 game. We go down in the third.
“There was no hang the head. It was “OK, now we’ve got to dig the heels in and go get this one. That’s what I love about this group. It’s just they never say die. In some of these situations we’ve gone through in the playoffs, maybe early, some of these games, we didn’t have the ability to come back. But with every day and every game, this team keeps growing. It’s a lot of fun to be behind the bench with them.”
Lightning center Steven Stamkos, too, talked about the team’s ability to deal with a 2-1 lead without letting up.
“We’ve been able to grow as a team through all these different experiences in the playoffs,” Stamkos said. “You kind of get the ball rolling. Who knows what’s going to happen next game? We have to be prepared for either being up 3-1 or the series being tied.
“We’ve had that same mentality coming into every game. You can only control your structure, your work ethic, your compete. Whatever happens happens. It’s a roller-coaster of emotions throughout these playoffs. Our group has responded every time, whether it be a big win or a tough loss. Last game was a big win for our group.”
This game, of course, the desperation is on the side of the Blackhawks. This time, it is Chicago that is up against it, that will have to fight its way out.
“They’re going to come out extremely hard,” Stamkos said. “ This is the situation we were in in game 1. We found a way to respond. They’re going to respond. This is going to be a good test for this group. We seem to rise to the occasion every round.”
The latest challenge? It’s responding to the challenge of a team that has won as much as Chicago, in its building, with its desperation.
“We’re a long ways away yet,” said Lightning forward Brendan Morrow. “The locker room over there, there’s no panic in their game right now. They’ve been here before. They know what it takes. So we know we’ve got a tough road ahead of us. I know we’re not there yet. We’ve got to get greedy and get another one. That’s our focus.”
Game time is 8 p.m.