TAMPA, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Lightning haven’t lost consecutive postseason games in over two years and haven’t faced a winner-take-all challenge since 2018.
That may speak to how difficult they’ve been to beat in the playoffs lately. Neither streak will mean anything when the defending Stanley Cup champions face the New York Islanders in Game 7 of the NHL semifinals on Friday night.
“You get to a Game 7, you know what’s at stake. You play all year to get to this point,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “You get one opportunity.”
The Lightning is 13-0 in games following a playoff loss since beginning of last year's title run, including an 8-0 rout of the Islanders in Game 5.
The Islanders evened the series at three games apiece by overcoming a two-goal deficit in a 3-2 overtime victory on Wednesday.
And while Tampa Bay has been as resilient as any team the last two postseasons, coach Jon Cooper and his players aren’t taking anything for granted in their bid to become the first repeat champions since the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017.
“I love the way our team has responded in the playoffs after losses. But you can’t hang your hat on that and say we haven’t lost in the playoffs in the last two years after a loss, or we’ve won every game in the last two years after a loss, so we’re going to win," Cooper said. "That’s a faulty mindset.”
The Lightning ousted Florida in six games, then eliminated Carolina in five to reach the semifinals. They rebounded from losses in Games 1 and 4 to build a 3-2 lead over the Islanders, who are trying to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1984.
Tampa Bay finds itself in a winner-take-all Game 7 for the first time since the 2018 Eastern Conference final, where they lost at home to the Trotz-led Washington Capitals.
“I think you’re going to have two focused teams, Game 7 with a chance to go to the Stanley Cup,” Trotz said.
“It doesn’t get much better than that for either organization, all the players and all the coaches. It just doesn’t,” he added. “There are things, when you’re growing up as a kid or a young coach, you dream of.”
As solid a track record Tampa Bay has compiled since being swept by Columbus in the first round of the playoffs two years go, the Lightning appear vulnerable due to an injury suffered by playoff scoring leader Nikita Kucherov early in Game 6.
Cooper said Thursday he did not have an update on the team’s best player.
Kucherov has a playoff-leading 27 points (five goals, 22 assists) in 17 games after missing the entire regular season while recovering from hip surgery. He had at least one point in each game of this series before being hurt during his first shift on Wednesday night.
“There’s no replacing Kuch. He’s had an unbelievable playoff for us. He’s so lethal out there offensively,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said.
Cooper wouldn’t speculate on whether Kucherov would be available for Game 7. He spoke in generalities when asked what he’d expect from other players if the Tampa Bay star doesn’t play on Friday night.
In the 13 games the Lightning have won following a playoff loss since the 2019 sweep, Kucherov leads the team with 26 points.
“Every team in the league will tell you, you lose players, you gain players, your lineup changes all the time. Is it ideal when you’re playing in the final four against the best teams in the league not to have your full lineup? No. But it opens doors for other guys,” Cooper said.
“This isn’t new for us. You move on,” the coach added. “And if you’re fortunate to win the game, it makes for one hell of a story.”
Anthony Beauvillier’s goal 1:08 into overtime capped New York’s comeback in Game 6.
While there’s no guarantee the momentum will carry over to Friday night, Trotz liked what he saw from his team.
“I saw resiliency. I saw determination. I saw what I’ve seen all year — a team that has backbone, has character, has all that,” Trotz said.
Cooper expects that from the Lightning, too.
“I can’t guarantee the result,” the Tampa Bay coach said. “But I know we’ll show up.”
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports