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Lightning's lapses mean lessons learned heading to Game 7

TAMPA, Fla. -- As dejected as the Tampa Bay Lightning were after failing to close out the Eastern Conference finals in Game 6 on Tuesday, they can’t waste any more time thinking about their 7-3 loss to the New York Rangers.

It’s on to Game 7.

The winner of Friday’s game at Madison Square Garden will earn a trip to the Stanley Cup finals to face either the Anaheim Ducks or Chicago Blackhawks.

Trailing 2-1 to start the third period Tuesday, Tampa lost focus and was lit up. The Lightning hung in there and kept it close for two periods, but they pressed too much in the final 20 minutes and fell apart. Too many mistakes and maybe a bit of inexperience in this type of situation caused them to grip the sticks a little too tight.

“For our team, as a group, we’ve never been this far before, and so it’s just more lessons learned,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “Sometimes you have to go to the school of hard knocks to find out what works and what doesn’t. We’ve got a young group. They’ve played some unreal hockey here to get us this far, and we showed if we’re not going to play the proper way, a really, really good hockey team is going to beat you, and that’s what they did. It’s a lesson learned.”

Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop wasn’t at his best, but it wasn’t completely his fault. Tampa had too many breakdowns and the Rangers capitalized. It also didn’t help the Lightning’s chances that New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was outstanding in the first two periods.

“We obviously did everything we could, especially in the first two periods. We had a lot of good chances,” said Tampa defenseman Victor Hedman. “Lundqvist made some unreal saves. You know as players there’s going to be ups and downs. Game 7 at Madison Square Garden, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

After New York made it 5-1 in the third period, Cooper replaced Bishop with backup Andrei Vasilevskiy. With the game out of hand, it was also a way to give Bishop a little more rest leading up to Game 7.

“Coop and I have been doing this for a long time,” Bishop said. “I know the way he’s thinking, that’s just the way it is.”

When asked what he can learn from watching the game tape in the next couple of days before Game 7, Bishop said: “Yeah, I don’t want to watch that.”

For the Lightning, this game seemed eerily similar to what happened to them during the second-round series against the Montreal Canadiens. Tampa had a 3-0 series lead but had trouble closing out the series before finally winning in Game 6.

That nervousness and lack of killer instinct reappeared on Tuesday. But Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is confident his team will bounce back like it has the entire postseason.

“Whenever we’ve had a low, we’ve found a way to come back with a high. We have to look at it that way,” Stamkos said. “There’s no time to sit here and sulk about it. We got beat. Whatever the score was, it doesn’t matter. There’s a Game 7, and we have to respond. Obviously, we would have loved to have closed it out here at home, but for whatever reason we haven’t been able to come out and play well after a big win. We’ve played well after a big loss, so hopefully we can come out and continue that trend.”

Going to New York now for a chance to advance to the Stanley Cup finals is going to be a huge challenge for the Lightning. The Rangers are 7-0 all time in Game 7s on home ice. If Lundqvist plays like he did the first 40 minutes of Game 6, Tampa could be in trouble. The Lightning will need to get to him early and often to have success.

“Just focus on Game 7 now,” said Tampa veteran forward Ryan Callahan. “We’ve got to put this one behind us as quick as we can. Don’t get the job done at home, so got to do it on the road.”

At the start of this series, many expected it would go the distance. It’s going to take nearly a perfect performance for the Lightning to win Game 7. Even though the Rangers have had tremendous success in this situation, Tampa won’t make it easy on New York.

“There’s pressure on both teams. I don’t care what kind of spin you want to put on it. It’s Game 7 to get to the finals,” Stamkos said. “I think you throw everything out the window. This is a winner-take-all. We have experience in this room playing in Game 7s, and they have some experience. We’ll go at it, and it should be a good game.”

Added Stamkos: “It’s fitting that it goes down to the end, so we’ll see what happens.”