TAMPA, Fla. — It was pouring rain again on Sunday morning, but Bill and Terri Schatz still showed up to the private hangar at Tampa International Airport like they’ve always done, holding a Lightning umbrella and a sign that read: “We love our Bolts.”
The couple, who moved to Tampa from Oklahoma City nine years ago, went to their first hockey game on a pre-season promotion where donating fruits and vegetables got you entry, but really became die-hard hockey fans during the Lightning’s run to the Stanley Cup final in 2015.
“We were hooked from then,” Bill Schatz said. “Once you fall in love with a team, you fall in love with them through good times and bad times. You really can’t expect to win every year. But this year looks good.”
It’s looking even better after Saturday night’s 3-2 win against the Washington Capitals, which put Tampa Bay ahead 3-2 in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final. A win in Game 6 in Washington on Monday, and the Lightning would advance to the final for the second time in four years.
For a team that many have selected as their pre-season favourite for each of the past few years, it seems almost anticlimactic. And yet, after missing the playoffs last year and losing in the conference final in 2016, no one is taking this run for granted.
“I don’t know if we’ve really sat here and said, ‘Oh, we’re just going to rush to the Stanley Cup final,’” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “If there’s anything that’s helped this team, we’ve kind of not done that. It’s so hard to win in this league, and the parity is so tight, you just can’t look too far ahead. I know when we went in 2015, all of a sudden the regular season didn’t seem near as exciting as the playoff run, and we just couldn’t wait to get back. You just find out how hard it is to win.
“That’s our ultimate goal, to get there. But I think they haven’t put the cart before the horse. There’s still a lot of work to do in this series. I think that’s why we’ve had some success.”
For the Capitals, it’s a much different story. Few picked them to get past the two-time defending champions Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round, much less be two wins away from the Stanley Cup final. At the same time, it’s a bit of a shock that they are on the brink of elimination considering how this series began.
Washington appeared to be in the driver’s seat after winning the first two games on the road and taking a 2-0 lead. But after losing three straight, the ghosts of the franchise’s past playoff troubles have once again come out of the attic.
“This group seems to never do anything really easy,” said Washington head coach Barry Trotz, referencing not only the adversity that the Capitals faced in the first round when they came back and won after being down 2-0 to Columbus, but also years and years of playoff disappointment.
“It’s a challenge,” he said. “We know we can win hockey games, that’s not a problem. We just got to go in there knowing that each guy is going to be ready, each guy is going to bring their A-game. If we leave it all on the line, we give ourselves the best chance to be successful.”
After five games, this has been a difficult series to handicap.
The best team hasn’t always won. Home-ice has not meant much. The Capitals dominated the Lightning in Games 1 and 2 and might have outplayed the Lightning in Games 3 and 4. But Tampa Bay, which finally had its most complete game in Game 5, has been far more opportunistic on the power play and is winning the battle between the pipes.
It would seem that the Lightning have the momentum after winning the last three games. Then again, we were saying the same about the Capitals heading into Game 3.
“You just never know when this opportunity is going to come again,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “You try to take advantage of that. You look at the group we’ve put together this year, it feels like a special group. You just want to take advantage of it. You never know in this game.”
Here’s what we do know: rain or shine, Bill and Terri Schatz will be waiting for the Lightning when they return from Washington. And, if all goes according to plan, the next time they see them off will be in the Stanley Cup final.
“I think they’ve to got it,” Bill Schatz said. “If they play their style of game, don’t play lazy in the first period, then they’ve got this. Washington blew an opportunity. They no doubt did.”
Passing the baton
If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a 23-man roster to raise a Stanley Cup. The Lightning are finding that out during this year’s playoff run, where each game it seems as though a different player has stepped up and made a significant contribution.
In Game 5, the so-called heroes were playing on the fourth line, with Ryan Callahan, Cedric Paquette and Chris Kunitz combining for two goals, two assists and each recording a plus-2 rating while matching up against Washington’s Alex Ovechkin.
“They inspire our team,” Cooper said of the trio. “They pull us into the fight. When you get to this time of the year, it’s oftentimes not the big goal, it’s the big block or the big hit, the big penalty kill that gets you over the top. Those guys are worth their weight in gold.
“It was the Brayden Point line in the Boston series. It was (Steven) Stamkos and (Nikita Kucherov) in Game 4 and 5 in New Jersey. There’s different heroes every night … there’s just so many things that go into it. When it’s all added up together, it spells team.”
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