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Erik Cernak-Tom Wilson fight shows Lightning tough enough

Tampa Bay’s added physicality should serve them well in postseason

TAMPA — This fight didn’t need a pre-bout weigh-in full of trash talk.

It had been building for two weeks when the Lightning’s Erik Cernak and the Capitals’ Tom Wilson dropped the gloves near center ice in the third period Saturday night.

The pair had come close to blows in both of the previous two games between the teams, but they were separated by linesmen each time, once as Wilson threw up his gloves theatrically. With three games in two weeks between the teams, the duel had a sense of inevitability.

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Cernak, a 21-year-old rookie defenseman, went toe-to-toe with the veteran heavyweight wing and held his own. He was injured in the fight, but coach Jon Cooper said he didn’t expect it to keep Cernak out as the Lightning completes is regular season this week, starting tonight at Ottawa.

“In junior, (Cernak) was the toughest guy that I played with or against,” said Lightning center Anthony Cirelli, who played with Cernak in the Ontario League. “I’m definitely not surprised he can throw with Wilson there.”

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Addressing its physicality was a focus for the Lightning coming out of last season. Washington pushed Tampa Bay around in last year’s Eastern Conference final and pushed the Lightning right out of the playoffs.

“It’s just development that maybe was missing a little bit last year,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We feel we can play that style if need be.”

Cernak has proved himself to be an important piece of that, though not the only one. Center Cedric Paquette has injected new energy into his game, and in his first full NHL season, wing Adam Erne also has established himself in that role.

Cirelli fought Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik on Saturday after what he believed was a dirty hit on center Brayden Point. In the last game between the teams, Lightning center Yanni Gourde and Capitals wing Jakub Vrana went at it. It’s not just about fights, though.

The Lightning’s efforts to increase its physicality has more to do with style of play. Plays such as Alex Killorn’s goal against the Capitals on March 16, when he shoved Washington defenseman Nick Jensen off him and the puck, show that tenacity. Players such as Point are willing to use their body just as much as their scoring touch.

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“(The Lightning) had guys over there that you don’t typically see throwing the body around, and they were throwing the body around,” Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said after the March 16 game.

The Lightning’s physicality rose in frequency and intensity immediately after the All-Star break. As teams got more desperate for playoff spots, games took on a different feel. Its first three games after the break were the most physical the Lightning had played.

Tampa Bay had no problem keeping that up, even as speculation swirled around the league that it needed a physical forward at trade deadline. Erne and Cernak seemed to take their play to the next level at that point.

These three games against the Capitals stand out as the most physical series the Lightning has played this season, in part because the series was squeezed into two weeks late in the season and in part because of the contrast to last year’s playoff series.

“(The Capitals are) a big physical team. We’re a big physical team,” Cirelli said. “It’s a lot of fun to be a part of. It’s like playoff hockey. It’s a lot of fun in the playoffs. Both teams are just trying to gear up for that.”

Though the Lightning lost Saturday after winning the series’ first two games, there was a message from this series: Tampa Bay won’t be pushed around.

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow her @dianacnearhos.

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