|Do or die as Lightning host Caps in Game 7|
TAMPA, Fla. -- The up-and-down, roller-coaster ride of the Eastern Conference finals comes to its final crescendo on Wednesday.
The Tampa Bay Lightning will host the Washington Capitals at Amalie Arena in Game 7 with the winner advancing to face the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final, which starts on Monday.
A Lightning victory sees the Cup Final start in Tampa while a Washington win means Vegas will host the first game.
But the way in which the series between Tampa Bay and the Capitals has played out to date, determining the outcome of Game 7 might prove to be a futile effort.
"Lots of people say we're going to lose to Columbus," Washington captain Alex Ovechkin said. "Lots of people say we're going to lose to Pittsburgh. Lots of people said we're going to lose to Tampa. Tomorrow is the biggest probably game in my life."
It's been that sort of a playoff season for the Capitals, who fell behind 0-2 to Columbus in the opening round, finally defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round and jumped on top of Tampa Bay 2-0 to start the conference finals. But the Lightning won the next three games before Washington won Game 6 on home ice to force the decisive game.
"I don't think anybody thought we're going to be fighting against (the) Tampa Bay Lightning for the Stanley Cup final in Game 7," Ovechkin said. "I don't think you guys (reporters) felt like you were going to be here. Probably thought you're going to be on vacation somewhere."
Whichever team does fall short on Wednesday will be starting their vacation one stop short of playing for the ultimate prize.
For Tampa Bay, this is familiar territory.
For the third time in the past four years, the Lightning will play Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, and the script has pretty much played out the same way.
In 2015, Tampa Bay had a 3-2 series lead against the New York Rangers but fell in Game 6. In 2016, the Lightning were up 3-2 in the series to Pittsburgh but failed to close out the series in six games.
Against the Rangers, the Lightning won Game 7. Against the Penguins, Tampa Bay lost the decisive game.
But both of those Game 7s took place on the road. This time around, home-ice advantage belongs to the Lightning as they seek a third trip to the Stanley Cup Final in franchise history.
"I do like the fact that there will be 19,000 people helping us, willing us to victory," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "I want our guys to enjoy the game. It's a phenomenal experience. This will be my third one in four years. You just have to remember, don't let the game become really much bigger than it is. Go out, execute, leave everything out there, see what happens."
That's where some experience can come in to play.
For many of the Lightning players, they have been in this situation before as the core of Tampa Bay has been pretty much intact for the past four years. Many have been through the experience, this deep in to the playoffs, together.
"I think Game 7 is something that everybody looks forward to, at least I do. I take pleasure in playing a Game 7. I think it's one of the most exciting moments in sports," said Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman, who has a 7-1 career record playing in Game 7. "I think you just have to embrace it, really just have fun with it. I think what it's all about. Usually if you have an open mindset, follow the game plan you set up, you are going to enjoy it. You will most of the time also have a good result."