TAMPA — It was after Game 1 when the Lighting returned to its dressing room after a four-goal loss, a defeated team but certainly not a beaten team.
"It's a series. It's not just one game," goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy said early Sunday evening. "Just forget about it and move on."
Vasilevskiy stood along a wall inside the Lightning's room, wearing a white T-shirt, a towel draped around his neck with sweat beading on his face. He had finished shaking hands with the members of the Bruins, hockey's celebrated tradition that comes at the end of every postseason series.
Vasilevskiy and his teammates were on the receiving end of the handshakes, having dispatched the Bruins with a series-clinching 3-1 win in Game 5.
It looked like the makings of a short series after the Bruins' Game 1 win, and it was a short series. Yet it was the Lightning that advanced to the Eastern Conference final against the winner of the Capitals-Penguins series.
That the top-seeded Lightning rolled off four consecutive wins against the second-seeded Bruins in the conference semifinal was a bit, what? Shocking?
"Any time a playoff series ends less than six, I think anybody should be shocked," coach Jon Cooper said. "All these teams are really good. You get the break here and there, however it is, you get the big save and the other team doesn't. But let's be honest, these were really good hockey games. That was a nail-biter right down to the very end."
The Lightning was better than the Bruins in every way except licking people and whining about the officiating. #TBLightning #GoBolts @TBLightning @TomWJones #TBLvsBOS #Bruins @TB_Times https://t.co/FpHkbdrrj2— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) May 7, 2018
Cooper said losing three times to the Bruins during the regular season was the learning experience his team needed. He talked about how the Bruins set the bar his team needed to reach if it hoped to play deep into the playoffs.
That the Lightning is headed to its third conference final in four seasons is proof it met the challenge.
It made a conscious effort not to turn the puck over.
It matched the Bruins' physical play.
It made the Bruins earn every goal when the teams were at even strength. The Lightning did not allow an even-strength goal during the final three games of the series.
"When you are not going to allow a 5-on-5 goal for three straight games, you are going to have a really good chance to win," captain Steven Stamkos said.
It got production from all four forward lines.
It came from behind and won in overtime on the road in Game 4.
It came from behind again to win Game 5.
The Lightning didn't give up an even-strength goal in the last three games, and Andrei Vasilevskiy was a major part of that. #TBLightning #GoBolts @TBLightning @TB_Times @gregauman #TBLvsBOS #Bruins https://t.co/OFod37aIG7— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) May 7, 2018
"That's how the playoffs go sometimes," forward Ryan Callahan said. "You get the bounces, you start rolling, you get confidence, you continue that, and we were lucky enough to do it."
Cooper pointed to his team's ability to not turn the puck over.
"The big thing about our team, when we were in trouble (in March) and people questioned how we played D it was because we turned the puck over, and when you don't turn the puck over, usually good things happen," he said. "With our team, they made 100 percent buy-in to not turn it over. When you're not doing that, you're not fueling the other team's offense. You're always keeping them having to go 200 feet, and ultimately that was the difference."
The Lightning received goals from 12 players, with at least one from all four lines.
"You go through the lines, you have guys who can put the puck in the net on every single line, who can defend, who you can trust in those situations," Stamkos said. "That's what good teams do at this time of the year."
Sunday's goals came from Brayden Point off a turnover in front of the Bruins net, J.T. Miller on the power play after a nifty give-and-go with Nikita Kucherov, and Anton Stralman, a 180-foot shot into an empty net with 1:29 remaining to ice the series.
Stralman's goal came not long after the Lightning killed off a tripping penalty on Ryan McDonagh with just under five minutes to play. Tyler Johnson and Callahan blocked shots, Callahan chased a puck deep into the Bruins end and kept it there as valuable seconds ticked away and Vasilevskiy was his usual brick wall, fending off one final Bruins rush.
Now the team that narrowly missed last year's playoffs after an injury-plagued season is four wins from returning to the Stanley Cup final for the second time in four seasons.
It put itself in this position after rolling the Bruins in four straight after being undressed by the Bruins' top line in Game 1.
It put itself in this position by rallying for a Game 4 win when the Bruins were seven minutes from evening the series at 2.
The Bruins were beaten soundly and systemically, with Lightning depth, Lightning toughness and the kind of emotion that produces playoff wins, not kissing. #TBLightning #GoBolts #Bruins #TBLvsBOS @mjfennelly @TB_Times https://t.co/WCWgFPJpoo— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) May 7, 2018
"We expected a long series," Stamkos said. "I don't think any team thinks it's going to clean out a team in five in the second round, but it happens when you play the right way, you get rewarded for it."
The reward? The Lightning keeps playing.
Contact Roger Mooney at email@example.com. Follow @rogermooney50