TAMPA, Fla. —Told that the odds were against his team in the Stanley Cup Final —78 percent of teams that lose Game 1 have lost the series as well —Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper didn’t flinch. His team has been beating the odds throughout the postseason.
“I think that’s why we’re here. Every time they get challenged [they respond],” Cooper said. “That’s why it’s been so fun to be a part of this group. You can see the look in their eyes. Every time the heat gets turned up, I’m almost standing in the way. That’s why they’re sitting here today.”
For all their speed and skill, the Lightning will be counting on that something extra in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday at Amalie Arena. As the Lightning discovered in Game 1, their speed and skill isn’t going to be enough to beat the Blackhawks.
The Anaheim Ducks learned that difficult lesson painfully in the Western Conference final. They thought they had the star power, the goaltending, the depth and a combination of speed and physical aggression to beat the Hawks. That got them to the doorstep. But as it turned out, they needed much more than that to finish the job. And they didn’t have it.
The young, energetic Lightning think they do. They have the speed and skill and goaltending. But they also have shown signs of the resilience and mental toughness that it takes to beat the Hawks. They overcame a 3-2 series deficit to beat the Detroit Red Wings in the first round. They won a Game 7 against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. They are 6-0 after a loss when they are trailing or tied in a playoff series this year.
“We’ve been pretty mentally tough,” forward Alex Killorn said. “How you come back after tough losses is a testament to that. New York was really tough, too. It seemed like every time we had a big game against them, they came back even stronger. We want to be a resilient group. We want to show we’re tough also when we come back on Saturday.”
There’s no such thing as a “pivotal Game 2” of a Stanley Cup playoff series. But the Lightning’s response after a disappointing opening Game — in which they led 1-0 in the third period, but allowed two goals in a 1:58 span to lose 2-1 — will go a long way toward indicating just how interesting of a series this is going to be.
They seem to know how to handle themselves on the big stage, giving the Hawks due respect without evidence of weakness. It’s not all about them. “We have to expect a better game from [the Hawks],” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We’ve hard them talk about it.”
Unlike the Ducks, the Lightning are not obsessed with wearing down the Hawks’ four-man defensive corps. And when asked about fallout of Andrew Shaw’s supposed biting of Victor Hedman, they avoided a war of words that would only complicate matters.
The Lightning know what they’re up against. The Hawks have a well-earned reputation as the most resilient, mentally tough team in the NHL — with a knack for winning postseason coin flips. Over the past three seasons, the Hawks are 13-6 (.684) in overtime, including 7-1 (.875) in multiple-overtime games.
In playoff games that are tied in the third period they are 23-9 (.719). For every other team with a similar sample size, those coin-flip games are virtually a 50-50 proposition —the Kings (10-8), Bruins (10-7), Rangers (11-12), Canadiens (7-7) and Ducks (6-8). The Hawks find a way.
“They’re a team that no matter what the score is, no matter how the game is going, they’re never going to give up,” Killorn said. “You look at [Game 1], their game against the Ducks when they were down two goals with [two minutes left and tied the game]. They’re a resilient group. We know you can never let your guard down, because once you do, they’re going to come back.”
But the up-and-coming Lightning are getting there. They are 3-0 in overtime games this season, including a 3-2 win against the Red Wings on the road to avoid a 3-1 series deficit. Last year they were 0-2 in games that were tied in the third period. This year, they were 6-2 until losing to the Hawks in Game 1.
“We’ve seen the position they’ve been in in throughout the playoffs,” Hawks forward Patrick Kane said. “It seems like when they’re supposed to win games, they come through and do it. They’re not a team you can take lightly by any means, no matter what the score or at any point throughout the game.”
The Lightning have a healthy appreciation for the moment. They’re not just trying to give it their best shot this year and wait for better opportunities in the future. (“We came here to win this,” Cooper said emphatically after Game 1) The moment isn’t too big for them. But to beat the Hawks, they will have to be the Hawks.
“If we had our choice, we would have just dropped the puck [for Game 2] at 11:30 that night,” Cooper said. “[But] there is something to be said about sitting back and taking a breath. It’s our first Stanley Cup Final. The media, media day, all that stuff, we got through Game 1. Wasn’t so bad, to be honest.
“Unfortunately we dropped the game. But if there’s one thing we learned it’s that we know we belong. The guys in that room feel they can win. You can’t have a better feeling than that.”