PITTSBURGH -- As a former Stanley Cup champion, Martin St. Louis has been through the ringer of a Game 7 before.
But for the benefit of his young teammates, the Tampa Bay Lightning veteran prefers to talk about the two pretend sevens of the past four days.
“For our team, the last two games have been like Game 7’s so I think our mind is in the right place,” St. Louis said Wednesday in advance of the real thing against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Consol Energy Center.
“I think we are a resilient bunch and have shown that this year. I’m proud of that. We’ve dug ourselves out of this hole and back into the series.”
They’ve done so despite being left for dead after Pittsburgh won Games 3 and 4 in Tampa and returned home with three chances to close it out. Some shoddy play by Marc-Andre Fleury in net and a dormant offence has caused the Penguins to use up two of those lives. One more and they’re out.
“Every play matters,” Pittsburgh centre Jordan Staal. “It’s desperation time.”
With a long day leading up to the unusual 8 p.m. start, players from both teams will ponder both what’s at stake and what it might take to advance to the next round. The winner will face either Philadelphia or Washington depending on the outcome of tonight’s other Game 7 between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens.
Among those who admit there will be some early-game jitters to destroy is young Lightning star Steven Stamkos, who had a breakout two goals, one assist performance here in Game 5.
“There’s a lot of us who came into these playoffs with little or no experience, but we’ve had to learn fast and I think we have adapted really well,” said Stamkos. “You hear from other players about what intensity is like, but until you experience it, you realize what it’s all about.
“Going through it has definitely helped and I think we’ve gotten better every game.”
The focus for what will no doubt be a restless crowd at the Penguins new arena will be the performance of Fleury who is needed more than ever with the absence of offensive stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
“He’s won some big games for us, he’s made the big save,” Bylsma said. “He’s shown he’s a big-time goaltender. This year, he’s our team MVP for a reason. In Game 7, we need him to be part of the identity of our team.”
That identity has been a split personality in this series. From the goalie who played strong early to the one who gave up a combined eight goals on the past 35 shots he’s faced.
If there’s anything that works in his favour, it’s that Fleury’s laid-back personality has helped him to be a good bounce-back goaltender in the past. He has lost a big Game 7 - last year against Montreal - and won them - in the Stanley Cup final two years ago.
“It would be nice to be done a little earlier, but now we are here. We know what we’ve done right and what we’ve done wrong. We just have to be ready. We have to go out and stay calmed and be composed. That’s how we are going to be successful.”
Obviously if the Pens are to be successful, they’ll have to do so without their captain and leader, Crosby, who has been out of the lineup with a concussion since early January.
Once again, Bylsma addressed Crosby’s status on Wednesday, making the point that the prospect of his return has not been a distraction for his team.
“I think there’s a large amount of speculation from a long ways away and some from close at home as to how close (Crosby and Malkin) are to returning. There’s no timetable. There’s not an anticipation it might be soon or when it might be for either player.
“Sid is still a ways away from even anticipating when he might return and our players know that hasn’t changed for him. The focus hasn’t changed and our guys are going forward knowing it’s going to be that way.”
The Penguins are just 7-5 all-time in Game 7’s and only 2-5 at home though they have won four of their past five ... The Penguins have outshot the Lightning in all six games with five of them seeing 30 shots or more directed at 41-year-old Tampa goalie, Dwayne Roloson ... Roloson has arguably been the star of the series, especially when compared to the play of Fleury at the other end ... “He’s our backbone for sure,” St. Louis said. “He’s given us a chance every game.” ... The Lightning are certainly hot, winning 10 of their last 14. The Bolts are 2-0 in Game 7’s in their franchise history ... The road team has captured four of the past five games in this series.