Sunday, May 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Four big reasons the Lightning’s Stanley Cup hopes are alive and well

BRANDON — Jon Cooper sat at the podium late Sunday and ticked off reasons the Lightning advanced to the Eastern Conference final.

Commitment to defense and lack of turnovers topped his list.

Then Cooper said, "We've also become a four-line team."

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It's getting tough to determine which is the first line, which is the fourth and which are the two in between, he added.

"Everybody is contributing at their own skill set and what they need to do," Cooper said. "When you have that, usually good things happen."

The Nikita Kucherov-Steven Stamkos-J.T. Miller line, the scoring line, would be at the top since it has the potential to take over a game and draws the most attention from opponents.

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But, what about the Ondrej Palat-Brayden Point-Tyler Johnson line? That is the Lightning's shut down line that also scores goals.

Or the Yanni Gourde-Tony Cirelli-Alex Killorn line? That is similar to the Point line in that it can shut down a line and score goals.

Or the Ryan Callahan-Cedric Paquette-Chris Kunitz line? It plays the fewest minutes of the four forward lines, but leaves a mark with its physical play.

Gourde said having four lines reduces the wear and tear on all.

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"We're not over-playing anybody, I don't think," he said. "Playing all four lines helps the momentum for all 12 forwards, and it gives (fresh legs) throughout the series."

Two moves right before and after the trade deadline  — adding Miller to the Stamkos line and promoting  Cirelli from AHL Syracuse — helped flush out the other three.

Cooper said Tuesday he was unsure where Miller would fit in when he joined the team. Cooper knew the former Ranger would be a physical presence if partnered with Stamkos and Kucherov that was missing when Vladimir Namestnikov was part of the line. Cooper also tried Johnson and Kunitz, who had played alongside Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, on the top line.

"There's got to be some synergy with linemates and stuff like that," Cooper said. "It was a bonus that Miller could slot in there."

Miller is comfortable creating traffic in front of the net, leaving Stamkos and Kucherov room to create offense.

"Everybody asked, 'Why didn't they have two or three points a night?' You know what they did? They didn't get scored on, and when we needed them, they came up huge for us," Cooper said.

The Point line, maligned after allowing 11 points to the Patrice Bergeron line in Game 1 against the Bruins, is the Lightning's most important line. It shut down New Jersey's Taylor Hall line and kept the Bergeron and company in check during the four straight victories to close out the series.

It can also score, as evident by Point's 32 goals and 66 points and Johnson's 21 goals, 50 points during the regular season. Point and Palat each have four playoff goals. Point's four-point effort in Game 2 helped turn the Boston series.

The Point line will be matched against the Alex Ovechkin line during the Eastern Conference final against the Capitals beginning Friday in Tampa.

The Cirelli line is not far behind in anything. Killorn is the power forward who plays smart defense. Gourde, who scored 25 regular season goals, is always around the net. Cirelli is a less-experienced version of Point.

"Cirelli's line, their forechecking and hemming teams in, they might not have scored every night (against Boston), but they sure had a lot of (offensive zone) possession time," Cooper said.

The Paquette line blocks shots and is aggressive on the forecheck. It is a smart, veteran line that seems to appear on every team that reaches the Stanley Cup Finals. And, it can score the occasional goal.

All four lines have produced at least one goal during the first two rounds.

"The playoffs are a grind. It takes work," Kunitz said. "If you shorten the bench (by playing three lines) one series it maybe lingers later on. The way we're rolling lines, you need to produce if you want to be playing, but go out there and create that energy, create that buzz."

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Contact Roger Mooney at [email protected] Follow @rogermooney50.

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