There were questions.
There were doubts.
For crying out loud, there was Carey Price.
It seems as if the world was ganging up on the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that had lost two in a row and had the highlights of its season forgotten. The Montreal Canadiens had captured the momentum of their NHL playoff series against the Bolts, and although Tampa Bay had a 3-2 lead, that seemed like a mere technicality to those who preferred to question the Lightning.
And suddenly, Tampa Bay was alive again, and Ben Bishop was bulletproof in the goal, and Steven Stamkos was scoring, and Nikita Kucherov was scoring. Just like that, the Lightning reminded you of what the Lightning used to look like. It was finding lanes, and it was skating free. It was the Canadiens who were struggling to keep pace.
They could not. And, once again, the Lightning came through in a Game Six, beating Montreal 4-1 to advance to the Eastern Conference finals, where they will play either Washington or New York (who play Wednesday night).
Yep, it was easy, all right.
All it takes is three games of climbing the mountain and two games of falling back down. Just that.
“Everyone says ‘Let’s forget about those games,”’ Stamkos said. “We were coming back to play in front of our home fans. What was not to love about that? Knowing how poorly we played last game, it was pretty easy for us to get up and play the game we did tonight.
“This was our Game Seven. We talked about that. We were talking and referring to it as Game Seven.”
In other words, this was a double-or-nothing game. If the Lightning had lost, no one would have bet a nickel on its chances of pulling out a Game Seven in Montreal.
This just in. Tampa Bay didn’t lose.
It was the Lightning’s most complete game of the playoffs. The Bolts outskated the Canadiens, and they outshot them (28-19) for the first time in the series. Bishop was solid in the net, outplaying Price for at least the fourth game of the series. He finished his head-to-head duel with a better goals against average, a better save percentage, more saves and more victories.
“I didn’t want to get back on a plane to Montreal,” Bishop said.
As it turns out, that’s pretty good motivation.
The Bolts struck fairly early. Kucherov scored twice, breaking out of a mini-slump earlier in the playoffs. Stamkos scored, continuing to break out of a major slump. And Ondrej Palat scored.
In other words, the Canadiens finally ran out of gas. In the end, their hole was just too deep. Not even Price could save them.
It was easy to panic around Tampa Bay, especially after news that forward Ryan Callahan, a feisty presence in front of the net, had suffered a ruptured appendix. But coach Jon Cooper had a sense of calm. Perhaps it is because he is a natural contrarian, but the more people told him how dire the Lightning’s situation was, the calmer he became.
“I felt like our game was changing,” he said. “Sometimes you win, and you don’t deserve to win and you feel nervous. And sometimes you lose and you play well. I remember everyone was telling us all the pressure was on us and we had dropped two in a row and all that stuff. “But I knew we were on. I knew these guys were going to come there and play well. I had a calmness about this game I didn’t have in the five games before.”
Why would Cooper believe? Well, maybe he thinks more of Bishop than you do. As he points out, Bishop played better and better as the series went along.
And maybe he has more faith in Stamkos than you do. He talked about the scrutiny on Stamkos, but he also talked of how much better Stamkos has played since being moved to the wing two games ago. Stamkos scored in both games since the move.
“It’s one of those games where you have to sacrifice,” Stamkos said. “Sometimes, that’s sacrificing your body. And sometimes, it’s sacrificing your time on the ice.”
Stamkos said the Eastern Conference Finals of 2011 were “the most fun I’ve had in hockey.” He said he thought the rebuilding of the team – only he and Victor Hedman remain – should give the Bolts a better chance in this one.