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The Lightning have been here before, but look a lot different

John Romano | Tampa Bay dispatched Boston in Game 5 to advance to the Eastern Conference final for the fourth time in six seasons.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) celebrates his winning goal against the Boston Bruins with teammates Ondrej Palat (18), Patrick Maroon (14) and Alex Killorn (17) during the second overtime period.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) celebrates his winning goal against the Boston Bruins with teammates Ondrej Palat (18), Patrick Maroon (14) and Alex Killorn (17) during the second overtime period. [ FRANK GUNN | The Canadian Press via AP ]
Published Sep. 1, 2020
Updated Sep. 1, 2020

When the moment finally arrived, the Lightning celebrated on their own.

Arms wrapped tightly around each other with the world watching from a distance. No fans, no family and, for the briefest of moments, no expectations hanging over their heads.

This is the way you should think of the Lightning this morning.

Not as the team that has forever been on the cusp of greatness, but as a group of players who have lived through ridicule and managed to come back stronger. Almost without anyone noticing in the past year, they have put egos aside and discovered something more rewarding.

Tampa Bay beat Boston 3-2 in double overtime of Game 5 Monday night to advance to the Eastern Conference final for the fourth time since 2015.

“I’m proud of this team. They’ve done everything we’ve asked,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “They made a conscious effort to put themselves in the position they are in right now and all the credit goes to them. They worked at it, they worked at their game, they’ve worked at their mental mindset.”

Related: Lightning-Bruins Game 5 report card: Nothing wrong with a little misdirection

While there is at least one more series to be played, what has happened the past few weeks should not be taken for granted. Reaching the conference final four times in six seasons is a feat not easily accomplished. In fact, in the last four decades, only four teams have pulled it off.

For crying out loud, the Washington Capitals have been playing for 45 years and have only reached the conference final three times.

So, give the Lightning this moment.

Give Victor Hedman the absolute joy of shooting a puck between the legs of Brandon Carlo to find the back of the net in the second overtime. Give Erik Cernak the memory of chasing down Brad Marchand on a breakaway in the first overtime. Give Tampa Bay’s forwards a pat on the back for surviving a 94-minute game while Nikita Kucherov was in the locker room with an injury.

Give Andrei Vasilevskiy a standing ovation in your living room for preserving that victory probably more times than you can count.

“We are a hungry team,” Hedman said.

Yes, they appear to be. And no one would have said that a year ago when the Lightning seemed to glide so effortlessly through a record-tying regular season. And then when the intensity was turned on in the playoffs, the Lightning were sent home with barely a whimper.

Compare that to what you’ve seen through the first two rounds of this season.

Tampa Bay has played 10 games in the first two rounds with four overtime victories and seven games decided by a single goal. Vasilevskiy has been in nine overtime periods in the last 20 days, and has not given up a single goal.

“It was a lot of adversity in different fashions tonight,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh who played nearly 32 minutes after missing the last three games with an injury. “Probably not as pretty as we’d like, but that’s how it goes sometimes.

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“I’m really just proud of everybody picking each other up through the ups and downs of the game. You know the rock of our team, for sure, was Vasy back there giving us a chance.”

In the end, the Lightning played exactly the way they needed. Not just in Game 5, but throughout the entire series against the Bruins. They were aggressive, but smart. Tough, but measured.

They avoided penalties and turned the series into a 5-on-5 battle, which the Lightning knew they could win. Even with fewer opportunities, the Bruins outscored Tampa Bay 5-4 on special teams in the five games, but the Lightning crushed them 14-5 at even strength.

There was the potential of Game 5 being a soul-crushing defeat for Tampa Bay. After all, it looked like the Lightning had the game won more than an hour earlier. Tampa Bay had two different leads in the final 30 minutes of regulation, and was 154 seconds away from wrapping up the series when the Bruins sent the game to overtime.

And yet the Lightning did not wilt.

“The way we’ve come together as a group during this time has been phenomenal,” Hedman said. “We’re looking forward to the next round.”

Now they have beaten Columbus. They have beaten Boston.

So maybe they haven’t yet beaten expectations but, for now, this will do.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.