Resilient Lightning pushes the Stanley Cup finals back to Tampa

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DENVER — Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper has often referred to his players as “gamers,” during these Stanley Cup playoffs, praising his team’s efforts night after night.

But “gamer” is a vague term, more or less hockey-speak to the general public. So what, exactly, does he mean?

​​“You just watched the definition,” Cooper said Friday night, after Tampa Bay topped the Colorado Avalanche in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals. “I don’t even know what else I can say to describe the guys. You’re down in the series, Cup’s in the building. You’re in a great environment for the home team. And how do you show gamesmanship? Everything we just did.”

The Lightning staved off elimination with the 3-2 win at Ball Arena in Denver, which sent the best-of-seven series back to Tampa for Game 6 on Sunday night. Colorado leads the series, 3-2.

“That warrior mentality has been installed in this group for many years and has been a big reason why our group has had some success in years past and we’re striving to do that again this year,” Tampa Bay defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “It’s a part of our DNA and it’s got to continue to be a part of our DNA.”

Tampa Bay came up big in Game 5 when it mattered most, jumping out to an early lead, playing tight defense and scoring on the power play. When it was searching for a big goal late, forward Ondrej Palat delivered.

Game 5 recap: Lightning staves off elimination, sends Stanley Cup finals back to Tampa

“We didn’t have a choice,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “This was do-or-die for us. Sometimes you get caught in looking ahead a little bit. This group did a great job of focusing on the present.”

A Game 6 win at Amalie Arena is not guaranteed for the home team, Cooper said, but he believes the Lightning will have the edge. With its plethora of postseason experience, Cooper said his team is better equipped to handle elimination scenarios.

When the Lightning faced a 2-0 series hole against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals, it climbed back to win the next four straight and clinch a spot in the finals.

“I do have to marvel at what’s gone on and how many times you can get kicked and get back off the mat,” Cooper said. “And that’s why I think teams don’t keep repeating because it’s easy to walk away. These guys won’t do it.”

Tampa Bay won the Cup in 2020 and 2021, but is facing a different road this year. It beat the Dallas Stars in six games for its first championship in 2020. The Lightning only needed five games in 2021 to top the Montreal Canadiens.

“We wanted to get back, push it back, see what happens, see where it goes,” said Tampa Bay forward Corey Perry. “We did our job [in Game 5] but there’s a big task at hand that we have to do.”

The last NHL team to trail 3-2 in the Stanley Cup finals and win was the Boston Bruins in 2011.

For Lightning forward Pat Maroon, the group’s resiliency comes from its work ethic. As cliche as it might sound, Maroon said, the Lightning was just wanted to play a single hockey game, and win that one game. Look too far ahead and the road will seem more daunting.

“You’ve just got to work hard,” Maroon said. “There is a huge challenge in front of us. It’s an exciting challenge. How are you going to embrace it? That’s it. Just because we have home ice doesn’t mean s— to be honest. We’ve still got to work.”

Andre Burakovsky travels to Tampa

Colorado Coach Jared Bednar said Saturday that forward Andre Burakovsky is traveling with the Avalanche to Tampa. Bednar said Burakovsky remains day-to-day and is a possibility for Game 6. Burakovsky has missed three straight games with a suspected upper-body injury.

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