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Steven Stamkos saves Game 4; Lightning close to closing out Bruins

BOSTON — Steven Stamkos heard the whispers. He knew what was being said about him.

He knew that some questioned whether he showed up in the playoffs. He knew that some wondered if he played small in big games. He knew that some doubted if he would ever be an impact player in the games that truly define a player's greatness: the playoffs.

He had an answer for all the doubters and haters Friday with what might turn out to be the biggest goal of his career.

And it just might turn out to be the biggest of the Lightning's season.

Want a big goal? Well, they don't get much bigger than this: Stamkos' patented one-timer with 7:04 left in regulation tied the score at 3 before Dan Girardi's goal 3:18 into overtime gave the Lightning a 4-3 victory over the Bruins in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal.

The win gave the Lightning a 3-1 stranglehold on the series, with Game 5 set for Sunday afternoon at Amalie Arena.

There were plenty of backs to pat after this one for the Lightning. Brayden Point had a brilliant goal after turning Bruins legend Zdeno Chara into a statue. Nikita Kucherov scored a huge goal. And, of course, Girardi scoring a rare goal for the winner.

But make no mistake, the goal of the night belonged to Stamkos.

And he was due.

The day before Game 4, Stamkos sat as his locker and patiently answered questions that were polite but essentially translated to: What the heck is wrong with you?

He had just two goals in the playoffs coming into Game 4. Both were on the power play, and one of them was into an empty net. Not exactly game-breaking stuff.

But Stamkos dismissed the negativity and responded with a goal that saved the Lightning's night and possibly ruined the Bruins' season.

"It was almost like Stammer saying, 'I had enough,' '' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

Stamkos set up shop in the slot and absolutely blistered a one-timer past Tuukka Rask for what was also possibly the biggest goal of his career.

"It's obviously a big goal," Stamkos said. "But in saying that, we come to the playoffs to win hockey games. Obviously, you want to produce. You want these moments. But there's a reason why we've been very successful as a team in the regular season and now in the playoffs. It's because there are very good players on this team. It's not about one guy."

Perhaps, but it does become noticeable when one guy who is considered a superstar doesn't have superstar results in the postseason.

It doesn't matter how hard he plays (and Stamkos always plays hard). It doesn't matter all the little things he does (he does them all). It doesn't matter how good of a leader he is (and he is good). And it doesn't matter how many chances he gets (and he has been getting plenty).

Only one thing matters: If you are a scorer, you need to score. And Stamkos had not been scoring. Entering Game 4, he had gone 18 playoff games without an even-strength goal.

So did he hear the outside noise about it?

"Sure," Stamkos said. "Any time you have a lot of success in the regular season, you just want to seamlessly transition into the playoffs. It's hard to produce in the regular season, never mind the playoffs, when it's very tight checking when you're playing really good hockey teams."

But …

"We knew it was going to come," Stamkos continued. "It's percentages. You keep working hard. You keep shooting the puck. You keep working the way you've done in the past, it's going to happen."

Know what else happened?

The Lightning never got rattled in a game that had the ups and downs of a roller coaster. And just as many thrills, too.

The Lightning jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals by Point and Kucherov, only to see the Bruins storm back with two power-play goals and a shorthanded one early in the third that would've broken the back of most teams.

But because of Stamkos, the Lightning tied the score.

"Yeah, it's always nice to do it in a big win," Stamkos said.

This win couldn't have been bigger. The Lightning comes back to Tampa Bay after winning two games in a building in which it had won only nine times since 1992.

"It's always nice to win a game, especially the magnitude of this one," Stamkos said. "Our line has been talking a lot about wanting to have a better game. Obviously, it's not a matter of will. We knew eventually it was going to come."

And it could not have come at a better time. For Stamkos. And, especially, the Lightning.

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