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.
It's Game 4 on Friday night and right back for Game 5 on Saturday night for the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars 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 or the Stars could outlast them to win a long, grueling series.
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.
"We felt like the longer the series would go, we would take over the series," Bylsma said by phone Friday. "If Dallas can win this and essentially drop the puck as soon as they possibly can the next day, they may be able to take over the series."
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Tampa Bay and Dallas players and coaches are saying all the right things about focusing entirely on Game 4 before worrying about Game 5 on the second half of the back to back. Bylsma agrees, while also pointing out that Jon Cooper and Rick Bowness might coach differently if the first one gets out of hand like Game 3 did.
Bowness pulled goaltender Anton Khudobin for rest after two periods, and Cooper kept top defenseman Victor Hedman and leading scorer Nikita Kucherov to one of each player's lowest ice time totals of the playoffs. The deep Lightning might also insert a forward with fresh legs for Game 5 or change looks with seven defenseman one night and six the next.
"For a coach, there is some planning going in to the start of a back to back," said Bylsma, who's now a Red Wings assistant. "As a coach, you don't include your team in this preparation. But you know you're playing back to back, so there are some scenarios in which you're going to make an adjustment in game in that first game."
Those are the controllable factors. A marathon overtime game? That changes the entire equation.
Then there are the injuries players are gutting through. Tampa Bay's top two centers, Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli, aren't fully healthy, and they're certainly not alone in playing hurt.
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," Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. "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 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, and went as far as Game 7 of the final before losing to New Jersey. Whether this series goes the distance may hinge on this back to back.
"For Tampa, this game is really important because Tampa Bay, it's going to get them 3-1 and they're going to want to drop the puck as quickly as possible in Game 5 to get this thing over with," Bylsma said. "And Dallas, they have a situation where they have maybe a banged-up (opponent), if they can win this game, they could be up 3-2 in less than 48 hours and one win away."
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. Bowness said forward Blake Comeau would be a game-time decision Friday night.
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."