The Tampa Bay Lightning finally proved they could win on home ice against the veteran Pittsburgh Penguins and forced what we all expected—Game 7 in this evenly matched Stanley Cup quarterfinals matchup.
The Lightning were too talented to go out with a whimper. The Penguins were too experienced to allow a snot-nosed upstart to run roughshod over them—even without two superstars.
This series had to go the distance...and here we are.
What have we learned in the last six games that can help us peer into the crystal ball for some sort of advantage in the finale?
The Lightning Can Score Some Goals
We pretty much already knew this, but it wasn't a certainty after Marc Andre Fleury looked like Terry Sawchuk in Game 1 of the series. Since that game, Tampa Bay has scored 21 goals in the past six games, including two blow out road wins.
Fleury has had his moments in the series but in the past two games, Tampa Bay seems to have found the answer to his puzzle.
Dwayne Roloson Has Outplayed Marc-Andre Fleury
41-year old Rollie the Goalie has been unconscious in this series for the Lightning. Roloson's team has been outshot in every single game, yet his sparkling .941 save percentage is second only to Washington's Michael Neuvirth among playoff goalies with at least four starts.
Fleury has been rather pedestrian, managing a 2.77 GAA and a .890 save percentage—despite shutting out the Lightning in Game 1.
The Penguins Are Extremely opportunistic
Tampa Bay's concentration has at times seemed to disappear at key moments in the hockey game and the Pens have made them pay. The first goal of Game 6 was a poorly played puck by Roloson that ended up in the back of the Lightning net.
Several times in the series, the Lightning have failed to get the puck out of their zone, created unforced errors or simply fanned on a puck that Pittsburgh pounced and turned into chances.
At times, the Penguins Want It More
In Games 3 and 4, the Pens dominated the games (despite the close score) because they simply fought harder. They won the little battles in the corners, won faceoffs and did what needed to be done to pull out the hockey games.
Scoring Depth Has Been Key for the Lightning
Despite a brief appearance in Game 5, we haven't "seen Stamkos" much this series. Without their hoss putting the biscuit in the basket, the Lightning have had to find other scorers to do the trick. Guys like Sean Bergenheim, Teddy Purcell, Nate Thompson, Pavel Kubina and others have made contributions when the big three (Stamkos, Lecavalier and St. Louis) have been marginalized.
Trends Don't Mean Much in this Series
Coming into Game 6, there were several trends tipping the scales in Pittsburgh's direction.
Five of the last six times the Penguins lost a series clinching game, they came back to win the next one.
In the playoffs, Marc-Andre Fleury was undefeated when coming off a game in which he was pulled.
The Pens had won six of their last eight playoff road games.
In this series, the team that scored the first goal of the game would eventually win it.
None of that seemed to matter Monday night.
I guess now is not the opportune time to mention the Lightning are undefeated in game sevens or have never won a series they did not have home ice advantage or that the Pens have lost four straight series clinching games.
The Lightning Can Win in Pittsburgh
Tampa Bay has won the last two games in Pittsburgh by a combined score of 13-3. Yeah, they have confidence going into this final game that they can win in the Steel city.
The Lightning Dominate on Special Teams.
Tampa Bay has been deadly on the power play. Despite going 0-for-4 last night, the Lightning still have clicked on 32 percent of their chances, good for third in the playoffs and best among Eastern Conference playoff teams. It's a bit surprising the Bolts have been this effective against a Pens penalty kill unit that was tops in the NHL during the regular season.
As good as the Lightning have been on the PP, their penalty kill is really what has kept them in the series. Pittsburgh is a dismal 1-for-30 on the man advantage.
The Penguins Can Dominate 5-on-5
The Penguins 12-11 advantage on goals scored at even strength is a bit skewed by the Game 5 8-2 shibacle. Eliminate those four goals scored by the Bolts in that game and the Pens advantage is a much more pronounced 10-7.
Of course, Game 5 happened and could happen again on Wednesday night.
Fleury Can Win or Lose the Series for the Pens.
If Marc-Andre Fleury has his "A" game, the Penguins not only have a chance to win Game 7 but will be extremely difficult to beat. If Fleury is the same goalie we've seen the past two games, it's going to be tough for Pittsburgh to break their string of four straight clinching losses.
This has been a tremendous, hard fought series between two evenly matched, good hockey teams. Would Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have swung the series in favor of the Pens? Maybe, but we'll never know. The bottom line is they're not here and they're not miraculously going to appear on the ice.
That's okay for the Pens, who've held their own for quite awhile without them. The fact that they've faced an arguably better talented opponent and had them on the brink of elimination twice is in itself a testament to the depth the Penguins have.
The bottom line—a seven game series is supposed to determine who is the better team. The Lightning have had superior scoring, superior goaltending and superior special teams throughout this series.
Experience and grit have tipped the scales for Pittsburgh three times. Will it be enough to close out the Lightning?
I don't think so. Tampa Bay will win Game 7.