Thursday, May 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jones: Mental toughness gives Lightning an edge

TAMPA — There's a cardinal rule in hockey: Never give up a goal in the first or last minute of a period.

Those are the kind of goals that break backs and crush spirits. Those are the kind of goals that lose games.

The Lightning did more than break that rule in Tuesday night's Game 4 of its playoff series against Detroit.

It broke the rule, crumpled it up into little bitty pieces, stomped on it, lit it on fire and then buried it.

Yeah, it gave up a goal in the last minute, all right. But it wasn't your run-of-the-mill last-minute goal.

It was a gut-punch goal, the kind that leaves you gasping for air.

Tampa Bay allowed a goal with 9.3 seconds left in the second period. Not only that, it was a goal that tied the score. Not only that, it was a goal that revved up the home crowd. Worst of all, it was a goal that allowed the Red Wings to crawl their way out of their casket.

It was a goal that could have lost the game and quite possibly lost the first-round series. It's the type of goal that should have wrecked the Lightning's night.

"It didn't, though,'' Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn said after the game. "We just came back into the (locker) room and said, 'Okay, let's go out and win the third period.' Hey, these things happen in playoff hockey.''

When asked after the game, goalie Ben Bishop said, "Okay, we gave up a goal. Time to go back to work.''

Center Tyler Johnson shrugged and talked about playing the third period like it was a pick-up game on a frozen pond.

Perhaps if any of us had known that the Lightning spent the second intermission talking about how it was going to win instead of how it might lose, we wouldn't have been so impressed with how it found a way to win 3-2 and now has a chance to close out the Red Wings tonight at Amalie Arena.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper pointed out after the game that giving up a goal in the final few seconds of the period certainly wasn't ideal but the timing wasn't the worst thing after all.

"I think it was good for us to go right into the (locker) room right after (the goal),'' Cooper said. "So we didn't have to sit out there and the crowd couldn't keep energizing (the Red Wings).''

It allowed the Lightning to take a deep breath.

"We liked the way we were playing,'' Johnson said. "We thought we were the better team through 40 (minutes), and we just needed 20 minutes to win a hockey game.''

Not only did the Lightning win, it proved that nothing is going to rattle this team. Not blown leads. Not bad calls. Not anything.

"I think that's just the guys on our team and the team we have,'' forward Alex Killorn said. "(Cooper) doesn't want a team that's — I don't know if uptight is the right word, but we're just loose. I think that (shows in) our play.''

The Lightning might not be as good as it was a season ago, especially without Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman at the moment. But it is more mentally strong than it was a season ago. The four games in this series have shown that.

In Game 1, the Lightning had a third-period go-ahead goal waived off by an offside call. In Game 2, it blew two one-goal leads. Yet it won both games.

It lost Game 3 in Detroit when it was held to 16 shots. It then came back and surpassed that total midway through the second period in Game 4. That showed determination.

And it won a game that it appeared to have blown. That showed stability.

"We weren't panicking at all,'' said forward Jonathan Drouin, who picked up assists on all three Game 4 goals, including the winner with 2:59 left. "When you get scored on that late in the second, sometimes it hits you and you kind of fall down. But we didn't break at all. We knew we were playing well in the third and we had a chance to win, and we did."

That has been the Lightning's attitude throughout this series.

Fall down, get back up. Something bad happens, move on. Something pushes, push back.

Maybe playing 26 playoff games last season cultivated that character.

"Last year there were a lot of ups and downs, and through a playoff series you get used to those and you realize it's going to happen,'' Killorn said. "It's something we've dealt with before, and I think that experience helped us out.''

All hockey teams talk the talk, but not all skate the skate. In locker rooms the day before playoff games, everybody talks like they are going to win. But often that confidence disappears when the games start.

That doesn't seem to be the case with the Lightning. Being around it, you sense that it believes it will win this series and has believed that since the series started.

And though the Lightning — particularly Cooper — would dread reading this, you do get the feeling that Tampa Bay will close this series out tonight in Game 5.

Of course, no one with the team is saying that publicly. It comes through in the Lightning's play.

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