The Tampa Bay Lightning would’ve preferred to have the Stanley Cup with them on their plane when they flew home from Montreal on Tuesday.
They’ll have to settle for trying to win it in front of their families, friends and fans when they play the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).
Tampa Bay let its first shot to close out Montreal slip through its grasp in Game 4, a 3-2 overtime loss at Bell Centre on Monday. But the Lightning lead the best-of-7 series and have a chance to experience a potential Cup-clinching game in front of their fans, which wasn’t possible when they won the it last season with only a handful of family members permitted inside the bubble in Edmonton.
“We missed an opportunity last night. Our group knows that,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said Tuesday. “And you turn the page pretty quick here this morning and you realize what a great opportunity you have here as a team, as a group and as an organization up 3-1 in the series. You’ve got to win one more and you’re going into obviously a place you’re familiar with, with a fan base that’s going to be behind us and we’ve got to go out there and give it our best effort and try to win one hockey game.”
The Lightning have experience in this situation. They had a chance to win the Stanley Cup in Game 5 against the Dallas Stars last season, but couldn’t hold a 2-1 lead in the third period and lost 3-2 in double overtime on a goal by Corey Perry, who is now playing for the Canadiens.
Undeterred, the Lightning played perhaps their most complete game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a 2-0 Cup-clinching victory in Game 6 two days later.
“Losing Game 5 last year was pretty tough, obviously,” forward Anthony Cirelli said. “We had an opportunity and they get that overtime goal, so it’s kind of same situation here and we have to have a short memory. You know the game happened, you know they got their goal, and we didn’t and now we’re going back home, and we have an opportunity, again.”
Unlike when Tampa Bay lost Game 5 to Dallas last season, it never led Monday but failed to convert on a four-minute power play that carried over from the third period before Montreal forward Josh Anderson scored 3:57 into overtime. If the Lightning players spent any time dwelling on being a goal away from completing their repeat bid, coach Jon Cooper could tell they had moved on by breakfast Tuesday.
“I think the staff were sitting there thinking how close we could’ve been, but the players were very similar to last year,” Cooper said. “They turned the page in the meal room and they’re pros. They understand it’s not a four-game series. It’s a seven-game series. I’m not sitting here saying they were thinking about tomorrow night’s game, but they understand that.
“I heard guys talk about it, like sweeping a team’s hard to do. It’s hard enough just to beat a team, let alone to take them out in four. And we’re in the Stanley Cup Final. Those are rare that that happens. Teams don’t fluke their way to the Final. It’s two good hockey teams playing each other, and the series was meant to go more than four games. Guys understand that.
“But I know that you can see even this morning they’re a focused group. They’ll be ready tomorrow.”
The Lightning’s ability to process what went wrong and quickly put it behind them has served them well in the playoffs the past two seasons. They’re 14-0 in games following a loss in the playoffs since losing four straight to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2019 Eastern Conference First Round, including 6-0 this season.
“At the end of the day, you hate to lose,” McDonagh said. “Sometimes you hate to lose more than you like to win. That’s probably the identity of this group. We’re all competitors and it bleeds right down from our coaching staff, too, giving us a plan and having us go out and execute and putting in a lot of time and effort. We’ve got to have that mindset right from the start and go from there.”
If the Lightning can rebound Wednesday, they’ll be the first team to win the Cup at home since the Chicago Blackhawks did it at their expense in Game 6 of the 2015 Final. Being able to share that moment with their fans this time might make the disappointment of losing Monday worth it.
“Our fans have been unbelievable all season through the ups and downs,” Cirelli said. “So to go back to Amalie and play for our fans is always is always pretty special. And (it’s) just an opportunity, and we’re not looking too far ahead. We’re just going to be focused on a period of time and be ready to go from the first.”