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If the hour is late, the Lightning must be breaking some team’s heart

John Romano | Tampa Bay has come within one victory of winning the Stanley Cup by always having an answer to whatever hurdle they’ve faced.
Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (22) celebrates his winning goal with teammate Victor Hedman (77).
Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (22) celebrates his winning goal with teammate Victor Hedman (77). [ JASON FRANSON | AP ]
Published Sep. 26, 2020

The puck started low and swift. It went between the legs of defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, and then climbed higher and higher until it passed over the shoulder of goaltender Anton Khudobin and landed directly in the heart of Tampa Bay lore.

The Lightning won another game, another overtime, another challenge. They had another game-winning hero, another comeback, another memory for the scrapbook.

This time, it was defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk who delivered the winning shot in overtime. This time, the Lightning beat Dallas 5-4 in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final. This time, the Lightning are one step away from the championship they’ve been chasing since 2015.

“It’s every sort of emotion you can think of,” Shattenkirk said. “More than anything how happy it makes you feel to help your team win a game. There are a lot of guys who had some big plays tonight. A lot of times you just look at the guy who scores the game-winning goal, but it took a lot for us to get there.”

They have had every answer this postseason. They seem to know every question in advance.

Hot goaltenders? Superstar lines? Shutdown defenses? It doesn’t matter. The Lightning are now 15-5 since the first round began, including 6-1 in overtime.

They aren’t dominating teams as much as they’re dissecting them. They keep it close, they avoid mistakes and they pounce at the first sign of weakness.

In this case, they made Dallas pay for penalties. Again and again. There have been stretches during this postseason when the Tampa Bay power play has struggled to find its rhythm without captain Steven Stamkos on the ice, but not in this series.

The Lightning went 3-for-4 on power plays Friday night, including the game-winner.

Shattenkirk’s shot wasn’t even meant to find the back of the net. Shooting from just about the middle of the faceoff circle, Shattenkirk said he was just trying to create some offense and possibly a rebound by forcing Khudobin to block a shot.

“We’re working for these goals,” said forward Alex Killorn, who briefly put the Lightning on top with a third-period goal. “They’re not backdoor passes or anything like that.”

This game itself was magnificent. Non-stop hitting, but no cheap shots. All kinds of scoring chances, with unbelievable saves. The Lightning came from behind twice, and the Stars did it once.

There was a gorgeous goal by Brayden Point on a pinpoint pass from Ondrej Palat that got the Lightning back in the game after trailing 2-0, and there was a bad-luck goal by Dallas that Andrei Vasilevskiy blocked but it bounced off Shattenkirk and right into the net in the third period.

“I think there’s a mental make-up you have to have to try to give yourself some success,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Some teams have it, some teams don’t.”

The Lightning were in this same spot five years ago. They had a 2-games-to-1 lead on the Blackhawks in the 2015 Stanley Cup final and came from behind in the second period to tie Game 4 going into the third period. Turns out, that was as close as that team ever got to winning the Cup.

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Chicago got a third-period goal to win Game 4, and then took Games 5 and 6 without ever trailing.

For a brief time, it looked like Tampa Bay might be wandering down a similar path Friday night. A pair of penalties put them in a 4-on-3 situation for 55 seconds in overtime, but they turned the Stars away.

Like everything else for the past two months, the Lightning had the right answers at the right time. And now they are one victory away from the second Stanley Cup in franchise history.

“We’ve won 15 games in this bubble, and I would say this would be one of the ones where they weren’t as fired up. And they were laser-focused,” Cooper said. “They came here to do something, and they’re on their way. But like we’ve said all along, we haven’t won anything yet.”

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

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