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Jones: Rallies in Game 5 victory again reflect Lightning's grit

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy makes a save in the first period in Sunday’s Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final against the Penguins. Vasilevskiy has started the past four games after starter Ben Bishop suffered a leg injury in Game 1.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy makes a save in the first period in Sunday’s Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final against the Penguins. Vasilevskiy has started the past four games after starter Ben Bishop suffered a leg injury in Game 1.
Published May 23, 2016

PITTSBURGH — It stood on the edge of the cliff. The dirt below, starting to crumble. The rocks underneath, beginning to give way.

Time and time again Sunday night, Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final, kept getting away from the Lightning. Because of it, this Stanley Cup-or-bust season was moving ever so close to being a bust.

But the Lightning wouldn't allow it. Of course it didn't. This amazing team refuses to let this amazing postseason go down without a fight.

On the road. Facing a good Penguins team in front of more than 18,000 screaming, yellow-clad Pittsburgh fans ready to celebrate a victory. It allowed back-breaking goals, goals that usually lead to back-breaking losses.

"We got hit by adversity a few times," defenseman Anton Stralman said.

So what did it do? It hit back.

"It just shows you the character this team has," Stralman said.

It showed heart. It displayed resiliency. It refused to quit even as its best players sat injured. It refused to quit even as seemingly insurmountable deficits were thrown in front of them.

And now it needs just one more victory to get back to the Stanley Cup final for the second consecutive season. Tampa Bay returns home Tuesday night and a victory pushes it one step closer to the top of the mountain.

How is it doing it? Heart. Passion. Determination.

And its butt.

Yep, its rear end. Specifically, Tyler Johnson's. Jason Garrison's shot in overtime bounced off Johnson's fanny and went past Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury just 53 seconds into the extra session.

"I was just happy to see it go into the back of the net," Johnson said.

Hey, whatever it takes, right? All the Lightning cares about is it is 60 minutes away from the chance to play for another Stanley Cup.

"It's a lot of fun to be their coach," Tampa Bay's Jon Cooper said. "I'm not saying they won't give you ulcers, but they there's a quiet calm with that group."

And it's that quiet calm that has this team where it is. And where is it? Far beyond where anyone thought it would be. Not without leading scorer Steven Stamkos and goalie Ben Bishop. Not after Pittsburgh won two of the first three games in rather dominant fashion. Not after Tampa Bay had to hang on for dear life after nearly blowing a four-goal lead in a much-too-tight 4-3 victory in Game 4.

Sunday night had all the makings of a tough climb for Tampa Bay.

But the Lightning played with heart and soul and a heavy dose of pride. It played a strong first period, only to see its hard work snuffed out when the Penguins scored the game's first goal with only 0.7 seconds left.

Those are the type of goals that can take the juice out of a team and short-circuit a game.

"Something goes wrong and you have to keep playing," Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov said. "If it doesn't go your way, you have to be able to keep going."

It didn't get any better for Tampa Bay in the second. Pittsburgh scored only 1:30 into the frame and that, you would have thought, would have pretty much ended the night.

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"We weren't going to quit," Stralman said. "We have too much talent and character."

First, it was Alex Killorn. His wicked wrist shot squeezed past Fleury, who was in net for the first time in these playoffs after recovering from a concussion. Then, just 1 minute, 10 seconds later, the Lightning tied it. Kucherov, the Lightning's best player with the absence of Stamkos, scored his 10th goal of the postseason.

Yet, the Lightning wasn't done making it hard on itself.

Again came another back-breaking last-minute goal. With only 49.6 seconds left in the second period, Chris Kunitz scored to give the Penguins a 3-2 lead headed to the third.

This game seemed over. The Penguins had a 46-0 record this season when leading going to the third. It's now 46-1.

Kucherov, again, came off the bench wearing his Superman cape. In a postseason full of third-period, crucial goals that either win or tie games that the Lightning goes onto win, he scored another, his league-high 11th in these playoffs.

His goal with 3:16 left — only a few moments after teammate Ryan Callahan's shot hit the post — tied the score.

That set up the overtime. And another gut-check, another chance for the Lightning to prove itself.

It did. And now it's one victory away from a chance to win hockey's holiest grail.

At the very least, it's on very solid ground.

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