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  1. Lightning

Fascination with overtime hockey anything but morbid

Nikita Kucherov, left, celebrates his winning goal in overtime with teammates Steven Stamkos, center, and Nikita Nestero. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Times]
Nikita Kucherov, left, celebrates his winning goal in overtime with teammates Steven Stamkos, center, and Nikita Nestero. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published May 22, 2015

TAMPA

Sudden death.

It's the most dramatic moment in all of hockey. In all of sports, really. Is there anything more exciting, more agonizing, more gripping than sudden death overtime in the Stanley Cup playoffs?

And the phrase itself — sudden death — is the most provocative in sports. Isn't it fascinating that it is from the perspective of the losing team, not the team that wins?

We don't call it sudden victory or sudden life. And the term is worse than sudden loss, probably because losing feels like more than just a loss.

For a hockey team, it does feel a little like death, as if your season is on the verge of passing on. For many teams, an overtime loss often does lead to the end of a season. Losing that suddenly is like having your heart ripped out. Surely that's what the Rangers must be feeling after losing Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final in sudden death overtime to the Lightning on Wednesday night.

You're so close to victory. Just a goal away. A goal and you win a precious game in a best-of-seven series. A loss in sudden death is like climbing a mountain, slipping just before the summit and falling all the way to the bottom again. All that you worked for is lost in an instant.

"Playing in overtime is a little bit of everything," Lightning center Tyler Johnson said. "It's exciting to think that next goal wins. It's a little nerve-racking, too. You don't want to be the one that messes up. But at the same time you want to be the guy that has an impact on it. It's a little bit of everything."

For the Lightning, it has been only one thing: winning. Tampa Bay is two victories from reaching the Stanley Cup final because of its success in overtime. It is 3-0 in overtime in these playoffs, winning an overtime game in each round.

All victories in any best-of-seven are critical, but the Lightning overtime wins are particularly crucial to where it is now.

There was the much-needed Game 4 victory against Detroit in the first round when Johnson's OT goal tied the series at 2-2 and probably saved the Lightning's season.

Then came Nikita Kucherov's double-overtime goal in Montreal that gave the Lightning a 2-0 lead in a series that stretched to six games.

Then came Kucherov again Wednesday. His goal less than four minutes into overtime gave the Lightning a 2-1 lead in the series.

The key to each of the three victories is the Lightning played to win, not to lose.

"If you're playing hockey to not make a mistake, good things are not going to happen for you," Lightning forward Brenden Morrow said. "You have to play the game to win it."

A big part of overtime success is handling the emotions of the moment. It means being cool, being calm, being collected. It means forgetting everything that happened in regulation. Whether you were the team that tied the score or gave up the lead to get to overtime, it really doesn't matter. None of that can help you in extra time when the next goal is all that matters.

"You just have to play your game," Johnson said. "You can't change too much."

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Overtime also means controlling your nerves. It means not getting the yips or the shakes, something that isn't easy when you know your first mistake can be your last. And that one mistake can cost you a game, a series, a season.

"Emotions change," Morrow said. "You're probably excited when you're on the ice. When you're on the bench, you've got a little bit of nerves. You like to have things under your control."

Morrow had the game under his control on May 4, 2008, as a member of the Dallas Stars. He ended the eighth-longest game in playoff history with a goal at 9:03 of the fourth overtime to beat the San Jose Sharks.

"Remember it like it was yesterday," Morrow said.

It was a power-play tap-in past goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who was Morrow's teammate in Tampa Bay at the start of this season.

"You do your best to celebrate, but I was glad there was somebody to hang on to," Morrow said. "Because it was quadruple overtime."

Morrow and Johnson said what every player says about overtimes: Play your game but don't take any unnecessary chances. Keep your shifts short. Don't do anything stupid.

And when it doubt, shoot. That's what Kucherov did to end Game 3. With his linemates going off for a change, Kucherov moved in alone against three Rangers. Instead of dumping the puck into the corner, he threw a shot at the net, and it just so happened to beat Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

"Sometimes they are lucky bounces and greasy goals," Morrow said. "Sometimes they're great shots."

You never know. But the plan has to be the same each overtime. So far it has worked for the Lightning.

"Stick with our structure, stick with our game plan," Johnson said. "It's bound to work for us eventually. You just hope it works for us before it works for them."

If it doesn't, the outcome is a cruel one: sudden death.

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