Ladies and gentlemen, in the twenty-three year competitive history of the Tampa Bay Lightning professional hockey franchise, the organization has been at this juncture four times in total. Four times the club (and folks like us - the fans) have reached the cusp of a berth for the National Hockey League's championship, the Stanley Cup Finals. Of those four opportunities in the Eastern Conference Finals, we've gone 7 games with the opponent every single time... And when I say four times, tonight happens to be that fourth time.
Looking at the history of those contests, two of the opponent franchises are original-six organizations (Boston Bruins in 2011 and New York Rangers last year in 2015). The other two clubs, the Philadelphia Flyers (2004) and now the Pittsburgh Penguins, were incepted into the NHL in the league's first expansion in 1967-68.
Think about that factor for a second - a 90's expansion team competing with a storied opposition franchise on four different occasions for the right to play for Lord Stanley's Cup. That is one real interesting storyline for the media to report on and share with the masses of readers and viewers. Or they can continue to stay the course and the lazy route and just latch on to the Pittsburgh Penguins ardently as NBC Sports Network has been doing in its coverage of the Eastern Conference FInal.
Before I go any further, if you happen to be a Pittsburgh Penguins fan and take my media remark as an attack on the Penguin franchise, please accept my apologies. Attacking the Pens is not my intention. For a national media company to latch on to a single team in a playoff series of this caliber and press that lone team in build up to the competition, that's a nice way to ensure viewers from one market and not draw in a national audience. It's a marketing failure on their part and it hurts the league in general because it caters to one segment/region and not the broader sport fan base. The Thunder Alley watch party has been cancelled for game 7 by way of the crappy national TV ratings for the NHL playoffs.
Back to the lead in subject matter: With the three previous Eastern Conference Finals performances off the Lightning, the club has gone 2-1. Only two players currently on the Tampa Bay roster have played in more than one of those previous three series, and yet only one (Victor Hedman) will be on ice tonight (the other player is Steven Stamkos). That doesn't make Tampa Bay's roster vastly inexperienced in Eastern Conference Finals game 7's, last year did happen after all and the Lightning took down the Rangers to advance, but it is saying the guys with tenure in competing in these functions with the Bolts are very few.
As a Lightning fan, you already know this but the current roster is mostly the same compared to last season's ECF roster for the Bolts (with Stammer's absence paired with Ben Bishop being out and Brendan Morrow being bye-bye). The roster has experience in general in this situation, so that oft-referenced asset is not something to question. In fact, experience is a silly word to throw out in certain situations... Like, oh, say, the Pittsburgh Penguins crease.
Matt Murray isn't perfect, nor is Andrei Vasilevskiy for Tampa Bay. They're not tenured assets on NHL rosters but they're assets to rally around and showing their careers are something to take note in going forward long-term. As a writer, I've already voiced disagreement with the Penguin benching of Murray in favor of out-of-game-shape Marc-Andre Fleury in game 5. Experience was the justification that kept being tossed out in why Murray should be sat or why Fleury was a sound choice in net... Yet experience means nothing when you're physically not in prime condition in the last-line-of-defense spot during a crucial series. It's not an experience question for either Murray or Vasy at this point; both men can do the job... It's how the teams play in front of them that is the question and could bring about roster shifts if necessary.
I don't know what else to tell you prepping off this game... With Nikita Kucherov's showing in game 5, it seems a bounty was put on him and Tyler Johnson in game 6 and both men were mostly moot subjects during play. It's necessary that they find a way back on to the score sheet, or Valtteri Filppula for that matter. The second-line center has been centering Jonathan Drouin (with Alex Killorn or Ondrej Palat on the left side at any given time) and has seemed to drop a bit in visibility; he has 6 total points (1 goal, 5 assists) in 16 games in the playoffs. That's less than 1/3rd of his points (31) from the regular season. The Bolts top 6 by and large is capable offensively, so it adds to the need for Filppula to step up and set-up like he's so capable.
- Tampa Bay Lightning official team preview
- Yahoo Sports (AP)
- Full Coverage on SB Nation