-- TAMPA -- So it comes down to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals to determine whether the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Tampa Bay Lightning will advance to the Stanley Cup finals to play either the San Jose Sharks or the St. Louis Blues. The Lightning-Penguins series moves back to Pittsburgh for the final showdown on Thursday at 8 p.m. ET at Consol Energy Center.
My esteemed colleague Scott Burnside will try to convince you that the Penguins will win and advance to the finals, and while I might agree (I picked the Penguins to win in seven games at the start of the series), here are three reasons the Lightning can win Game 7:
Been there, done that: We're already three-quarters of the way toward history repeating itself. The Lightning lost on home ice in Game 6 of last year's Eastern Conference finals, to the New York Rangers, but then rebounded with a 2-0 win in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden to advance to the Stanley Cup finals. This year Tampa Bay dropped Game 6 at Amalie Arena 5-2 to the Penguins and now must win on the road again to earn a second consecutive trip to the finals. Lightning coach Jon Cooper has used the word "resiliency" numerous times throughout the playoffs. You can count on him to employ it again in the next 38 hours.
"It's tough," Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said of losing Game 6. "Any time you miss an opportunity like this, it's disappointing. Our first 40 minutes wasn't where it needed to be. We had a good third but obviously too little too late and there's nothing we can do about it now. We move on, we get past it, forget about this game and go play one game for a chance to advance."
Callahan is convinced the Lightning can shake off the loss and focus on Game 7.
"I know we can," he said. "I've got confidence in this group. We believe in here that we can do that. We've had success on the road in the playoffs. We've had success in their building already. So it's going to be a good one."
Tampa Bay won Game 1 on the road and finished off the Penguins in overtime 4-3 in Game 5 at Consol Energy Center. There's no reason to think they can't do it again in Game 7.
Could the captain make a comeback? With their season on the brink, perhaps the Lightning will get a charge if captain Steven Stamkos returns to the lineup for Game 7.
Stamkos hasn't played in a game since having surgery to remove a blood clot near his collarbone on April 4. He has been practicing with the team and says he's back in game shape. But he must get off the blood thinners he's been taking and wait close to 24 hours before taking contact. If he were to stop the medication, say Wednesday, he would be able to play Thursday night.
Think about what his return would mean to the Lightning -- not only on the ice, but also how it would energize his teammates off the ice. Maybe he wouldn't play big minutes. but his presence on special teams could be the difference. What a story it would be if No. 91, in his return, scores the game-winning goal to lead the Lightning back to the Stanley Cup finals.
Of course, goaltending hasn't been an issue for Tampa Bay, even without Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop, who suffered a lower-leg injury in Game 1 of this series. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been solid in net for the Lightning. Even though there hasn't been much of a drop-off between the pipes, if Bishop is able to return to the lineup for Game 7, that would also give Tampa Bay a massive boost of confidence.
Always a bridesmaid: No player on any of the four remaining teams in the playoffs needs more motivation at this point of the season, but there could be a rallying cry in the Lightning room for veterans Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman. Both players have been to three consecutive Eastern Conference finals -- one with the Rangers in 2014 and the past two with the Lightning. It's difficult to reach the Stanley Cup finals, and opportunities like these don't come around too often, so for Boyle and Stralman, maybe their experience and their teammates' motivation will be the guide to get the Lightning into the finals once again.