Friday, December 15, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning earns relaxation time thanks to Game 5 clincher (w/video)

TAMPA — They can lounge around all day, maybe take a nap, catch a little Judge Judy.

They can sleep in, grab a late lunch, play 18 holes.

Somebody said something about a beach.

Yep, the Lightning players can do whatever they want today. What they don't have to do is get on a plane, fly to Detroit, practice and continue their playoff series with the Red Wings.

They made sure of that Thursday night. The game was ugly. The score was beautiful.

Tampa Bay 1, Detroit 0.

That's it. Series won. It wasn't easy, but it's over. Five games. There won't be a Game 6. Cancel that flight to Motown.

"I'm so happy that I don't have to get on a plane (today)," Lightning forward Alex Killorn said.

Killorn made sure of that, scoring the game's only goal with 1:43 left in the third period.

Staying put, but moving on. On to the next round.

Before then, the Lightning will get some much-needed rest. Don't underestimate how critical that is.

Aside from taking the first step in the Stanley Cup playoffs, that's the best thing for the Lightning. It now can put its feet up for a few days before continuing its journey through the most grueling tournament in sports.

The Lightning might not play again for a week. Rust versus rest? It's no contest.

"Rest wins every time," coach Jon Cooper said.

Especially this time of year.

"It doesn't hurt," goalie Ben Bishop said.

Not only that, a few days off also buys more time for injured regulars such as defenseman Anton Stralman and forward J.T. Brown to, perhaps, work their way back into the lineup.

It also gives the Lightning a chance to survive what sounds like a flu-type bug that is making the rounds through the locker room and might have sidelined Tyler Johnson for several shifts Thursday.

The Lightning definitely can use a break.

"We need to get away and get healthy," Cooper said. "We snuck one out tonight, and if we're going to go any farther than this, we need to get healthy and play a heck of a lot better than this."

Truth be told, the Lightning wasn't very good in Game 5. The way Cooper graded it, his team was a C, while the Red Wings were an A. But Bishop was an A-plus. He's the lone reason why the Lightning is moving on.

Tampa Bay is better than Detroit and deserved to win the series. But it didn't deserve to win Thursday. The team was sloppy. Maybe a tad nervous. Maybe it had something to do with the old fourth-win-is-the-toughest cliche.

But Bishop made 34 saves. It felt as if 30 were top-notch chances. Three were on breakaways. He had help from a goalpost, too.

Looking back, how did Detroit not win this game?

Bishop was king. Checkmate.

Sooner or later, Bishop was going to steal a game in this series. Thursday was that game.

"If not for Bish, we're going back to Detroit," forward Ryan Callahan said.

The Lightning's 4-1 series victory comes with concerns. Tampa Bay advances but not in especially pretty fashion against an underwhelming team. Sorry, but the Red Wings just aren't that good.

Yet give Tampa Bay credit: It won a series without Stralman and, most of all, captain and leading goal scorer Steven Stamkos.

"It was tough, but we weren't going to feel bad for ourselves for one second," Callahan said. "Obviously, you don't draw up losing two key guys like that, but as soon as it happened and we found out they weren't playing, we moved past it and we tried to, as a group, be good."

They were good, or at least good enough to win this series.

Nikita Kucherov was a monster, at times leaving you to wonder if he (and not Stamkos) is the best and most-skilled player on this team. Jonathan Drouin came back from the dead to take his game to new heights. He is clearly a different player than he was a season ago when he was often a healthy scratch in the postseason.

Killorn and Johnson were outstanding, scoring big goals at key times. Defenseman Victor Hedman, who is regularly now playing 30 minutes a game, is once again turning the postseason into his own personal platform, saving his best for the most important part of the year.

And, of course, there's Bishop.

Next up for Tampa Bay is either the cross-state Panthers or the Islanders. Either team will present a much greater challenge than the Red Wings. The good news for Tampa Bay is that while the Islanders and Panthers continue to slug it out with their best-of-seven series tied at two games apiece, the Lightning will be home relaxing for a few days.

Maybe it can hang out at the beach for a day or two. Soak up the sun. Get healthy.

Then when it returns to practice, probably sometime over the weekend, it can try to fix up that inconsistent power play, which it will need moving forward. Maybe it can find another goal-scorer or two.

There's more work to be done. Time to get ready for a really tough series.

After a few days of rest.

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