TAMPA — Plenty of NHL teams have skilled scorers, and a few have elite goaltenders, too.
But not many have that elusive quality that can turn contenders into champions. You can’t measure it, and you can’t fake it. You can’t bully your way into it, and you can’t acquire it through shortcuts, either.
It’s a presence. A mindset. A confidence that comes from a lifetime of scars.
It’s that quality that allows a team to blow a two-goal lead in the third period, lose Game 3 in overtime and then come back a couple of days later and regain command of a series no matter how ugly, nasty or violent the mood becomes.
Say whatever else you want, the Lightning are cool.
Tampa Bay ignored a potential momentum-swinging loss in overtime on Thursday night, and embarrassed Florida 6-2 on Saturday afternoon in Game 4 to move to within one victory of clinching their first-round series.
If you’re counting, that’s the seventh consecutive time the Lightning have followed up a loss in the postseason with a victory.
“You obviously gain that experience by going through tough losses,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “We lost the last game in overtime but, you look back, we lost Game 5 against the (Dallas) Stars when we had a chance to win the Stanley Cup. We lost in overtime and the way we reacted after that game gave me a lot of confidence in how we would react after losing (Thursday).
“It just proved once again that what we have in our room is very special. We have so many special leaders. We have got leadership from top to bottom, we’re a confident group when we come to these situations. I’m very proud of the guys for the way we responded.”
The Lightning have now played 26 playoff games over two seasons without losing two in a row. They’ve taken the four-game sweep at the hands of Columbus in the first round of 2019 and matured into the NHL’s ultimate bounce-back team.
For a large part of the game, Florida had fired more than twice as many shots at the goal. At one point, the Panthers had four more power plays than the Lightning. And once the outcome became obvious, the Panthers began hacking and goading the Lightning into scrums in the third period.
Yet none of it mattered.
For the most part, Tampa Bay stuck to its script and focused on the scoreboard. The Lightning had a few senseless penalties of their own, but they had the maturity and composure to avoid anything that would jeopardize the outcome.
“That was a tough loss the last game, for sure, especially when they came back with two goals in the third period, but this is veteran group,” said forward Alex Killorn, who had two goals. “We realize in these playoffs there’s going to be ups and downs. It’s how you handle the adversity, and tonight was a great job.”
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The Panthers, meanwhile, have tried everything. They’ve switched goaltenders from Sergei Bobrovsky to Chris Driedger, back to Bobrovsky and then back to Driedger. Finally, with 10 minutes remaining in Game 4, they did without a goaltender for a while.
When all else failed, they began taking aim at Lightning players. Nikita Kucherov had to be helped off the ice after getting slashed in the leg, and Mikhail Sergachev also went down after being driven into the boards.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper would not address the severity of the injuries but was clearly peeved with the way the officials handled the rowdiness in the third period.
“We came here to win a hockey game, and we did,” Cooper said. “The power play was outstanding, the penalty killing got the job done. We gamed it out. We’ve got better in us, we know that. We’ve come here to win four, we’ve only won three. We still have to get another one.”
So let this be the series epitaph:
Ryan Lomberg grabbing Yanni Gourde by the jersey and jerking him back and forth in an invitation to fight, and Gourde just grinning and taking it all. It’s the difference between frustration and achievement. Between desperation and poise.
In the end, it’s the difference between losing and winning.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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