EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — Dan Bylsma sees some parallels between this Stanley Cup Final that features games on back-to-back nights and the last time it happened in 2009 when he was the winning coach.
After the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Dallas Stars in overtime Friday night, it's right back for Game 5 on Saturday night in just the second final with a back-to-back since the mid-1950s. While it was Games 1 and 2 for Bylsma's Pittsburgh Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings, the scheduling could mark a turning point this year because the banged-up Lightning might need to close this out fast.
Penguins players told Bylsma leaving old Joe Louis Arena down 2-0, “We're going to win.” It was all about extending the series as long as possible because Detroit was the more tired team from playing three games in four days dating to their Western Conference clincher.
The Lightning are far from fully healthy, so their goal is not to let the Stars hang around.
“They’re going to want to drop the puck as quickly as possible in Game 5 to get this thing over with,” Bylsma said by phone Friday.
Tampa Bay and Dallas players and coaches said all the right things about focusing entirely on Game 4 before worrying about Game 5 on the second half of the back to back. Even when it was over, Cooper said, “Let's digest this” about an emotional overtime victory before shifting the focus forward.
Tampa Bay's top two centers, Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli, are playing through pain, and they're certainly not alone in that.
That's a hallmark of playoff hockey. Back to backs usually are not this deep in the postseason, but don’t expect any complaints after two months in the bubble and the NHL nearing the finish line to complete the season.
“When we saw it on the schedule, we were a little bit surprised being that it was the Stanley Cup finals,” said Lightning forward Alex Killorn, who scored in Game 4. “But as a team we’ve been in these situations plenty of times. It’s more of a mental battle than anything. I think we’ll be ready. We look forward to it.”
A major difference between 2009 and now is not needing to fly between cities after Games 2, 4, 5 and, if necessary, 6.
“When it’s the same for both teams and there’s no travel involved, it’s a little better physically,” Bowness said. “The grind that both teams have been through since July is certainly a factor — both physically and mentally.”
And Bylsma believes the quick turnaround typically benefits the winner of the first half of this back to back. His Penguins in ’09 got two days off to regroup after a blowout loss in Game 5 and then two more after a Game 6 victory to survive.
These teams don't get that luxury, so the pressure is real. Bylsma likens Tampa Bay's spot to the 2003 Anaheim Ducks when he was a player and they took a 3-0 lead over the powerful Red Wings in the first round.
“I’ve never seen 22 guys more nervous for a Game 4 when you’re up 3-0 because we felt like we had to win,” he said, comparing it to when Los Angeles erased a 3-0 series deficit against San Jose in 2014. “We were so nervous and felt like we needed to win Game 4 to finish them off.”
Anaheim did. Now, it's Tampa Bay's turn.
Steven Stamkos made a lasting mark on the final with an iconic goal, though that could be the last time he takes this ice in the series.
Out for Game 4, Stamkos has not been ruled out for the series, but it's certainly possible after he played just 2:37 before tweaking something in Game 3.
“He felt he did a big part in helping us win that game,” Cooper said. “You’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt, and so far the hand’s been a pretty good one. It’s just unfortunate he hasn’t been able to be a part of it, but when he was able to, obviously he had a huge impact for us.”
Stamkos scored on his only shot Wednesday night, capping an emotional return almost seven months in the making and helping Tampa Bay take a 2-1 series lead. He hadn't played since Feb. 25, had core muscle surgery in early March and aggravated the injury in voluntary workouts over the summer.
Fourth-liner Jason Dickinson has been one of the Stars' best players in the final based on his usual defensive stinginess and some offensive production. After no goals in his first 21 postseason games, Dickinson has scored twice in this series.
Dickinson also draws the tough assignment of matching up against Tampa Bay's top line of Point, Kucherov and Ondrej Palat.
“He’s a hard-working guy who doesn’t get a lot of credit sometimes,” said Stars center Tyler Seguin, who took a career playoff worst 12-game goal drought into Friday's game. “(Given) all the other things he does right, you don’t even talk about the goal-scoring and he’s getting rewarded now, so that’s great.”
After running down Dallas' injured players, Bowness paused for a second and quipped, “There's a lot of them.” The Stars may still be the healthier team given the Lightning's woes, but the injuries are piling up.
Center Radek Faksa, defenseman Stephen Johns and goaltender Ben Bishop remain unfit to play. Forward Blake Comeau also missed Game 4 with an apparent right shoulder injury.
Bishop, who hasn't played since Game 5 of the second round when he was pulled after allowing four goals on 19 shots in under 14 minutes, joined the optional Friday morning skate toward the end to get some work in. Faksa, who was seen with his left wrist taped earlier in the playoffs, did not take part and Bowness wouldn't bite on a question about whether he or Bishop were close.
“They’re unfit to play,” he said. “Good try, though.”
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