TAMPA, Fla. -- It’s this simple: If the Tampa Bay Lightning win Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, they advance to the Stanley Cup finals for a second consecutive season. If the Pittsburgh Penguins win, they force a Game 7. The Lightning hold a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven series. The puck drops for Game 6 at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday at Amalie Arena.
“We know the recipe. We know what to do,” said Penguins defenseman Kris Letang. “We proved it during this series that we’re able to beat that team if we’re playing the right way.”
Pittsburgh is a desperate team and it needs to play with that sense of urgency. The Lightning want to end this now and avoid having to make a return trip to Pittsburgh for a Game 7. Here’s what to watch for Tuesday night:
Returning to the rookie: After going with veteran Marc-Andre Fleury in goal for Game 5, which the Penguins lost, coach Mike Sullivan is going back to 21-year-old rookie netminder Matt Murray for Game 6. Before serving as the backup in Game 5, Murray had started the previous 13 postseason games. He posted a 6-1 record with a .944 save percentage in his first seven playoff games and is 3-3 in his past six games, along with an .892 save percentage. He has shown no signs of being rattled.
“[He's] just really confident,” captain Sidney Crosby said of Murray. “It doesn’t seem like any situation really fazed him or surprised him. He’s handled each challenge like he’s been through it way beyond his years. He’s always been confident and showed a lot of poise and that’s the biggest thing that has stuck out to me.”
It’ll be interesting to see if Murray can maintain that poise as the Penguins attempt to stave off elimination.
True to his word: Penguins assistant captain Evgeni Malkin all but guaranteed a victory in Game 6, saying this series will return to Pittsburgh for Game 7. He also predicted that he would score in Game 6. In order for the Penguins to force a final game, Malkin -- who has only one goal and one assist in this series -- needs to produce. He needs to play a better two-way game and spend as much time in the offensive zone as possible.
“Yeah, of course,” he said. “We have a good team. All 20 guys are ready to play. It’s not over. If we play like [we did in] Game 3 in Tampa, same game, spend time in our offensive zone, play physical, and try to get it back to Pittsburgh.”
Malkin has points in eight straight games at Amalie Arena, including five goals and 10 assists for 15 points in that span.
Geno’s not alone: As much as the Penguins need Malkin to step it up, Letang needs to clean things up, too. He did not register a point and was a minus-4 in Game 5. It appears he’s lost his focus and he’ll need to rediscover it for Game 6 because the Penguins need the defenseman's contributions and ice time.
“We have to come with the mindset that we’re going to play the right way,” said Letang, who played in his 108th career playoff game on May 22, surpassing Mario Lemieux for sole possession of fourth place on Pittsburgh's all-time playoff games list. Letang needs to put forth a Lemieux-esque performance in Game 6.
Will Lightning learn from the past? A season ago, the Lightning completely imploded during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against the New York Rangers at Amalie Arena. The Rangers dismantled Tampa Bay 7-3 and ran goalie Ben Bishop from the game. But the Lightning responded in a big way in Game 7 to earn a berth in the Stanley Cup finals.
So the Lightning realize what’s at stake in Game 6 and know there’s no way they want to return to Pittsburgh for a possible Game 7. “Sometimes the last game to finish everything off is the hardest,” said Tampa Bay’s Andrej Sustr. “If we’re going to play like we did in Game 4, we’re going to need to come out pretty strong and carry it through the whole game and that’s going to be key for us to be successful.”