TAMPA — For a few minutes there, Nikita Kucherov again looked like the best hockey player on the planet.
The Lightning defense looked smart, tough and efficient in the third period, and the special teams were spectacular for most of the afternoon in a 6-4 win in Game 4 against Carolina on Saturday.
Yet, if you’re being honest, the Lightning were lucky to have won.
They were lucky not to be going back to Raleigh, N.C., with the series tied, and lucky not to have suffered consecutive losses in the playoffs for the first time in more than 30 games. Mostly, they were lucky that the Hurricanes lost their damn minds.
Carolina had the defending Stanley Cup champions looking shaken and tentative on their home ice. They were beating them to the puck, they were dominating possession and they were leading 4-2 with the game more than halfway completed.
Then the Hurricanes took two penalties in the final five-plus minutes of the second period and practically punched Tampa Bay’s ticket to the next round of the NHL postseason.
“We knew coming in that you can’t take penalties against these guys, and we were taking them,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “I think there was some frustration, on the guys’ part and mine that, yeah, they were penalties, but there were definitely some (by the Lightning) the other way that were getting let go. I think that’s where the frustration was happening.
“But, again, you can’t take the penalties. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting calls or not. You just can’t take the risk, I guess is the best way to put it.”
This doesn’t mean the Lightning didn’t deserve to win. They surely did. Kucherov looked like a magician for much of the afternoon, Steven Stamkos played the part of a savvy veteran to perfection and Tyler Johnson offered a reminder of his best days in a Lightning sweater.
Even if Carolina gave them a gift, the Lightning had enough experience and skill to pounce on the opportunity. And that’s an enviable quality by itself.
“If they get a good look, they’ve got guys who can finish. That’s just what they do,” Brind’Amour said. “That’s the story. You can write anything else you want, but that’s the story right there. You can’t take those penalties, and we did.”
For the record, the Lightning went 3-of-6 on power plays in Game 4. The Hurricanes went 0-for-2.
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Carolina fans on Twitter were apoplectic about the disparity, but the calls were not that egregious. You might pick out a couple of moments when the Lightning could have been whistled for penalties but the biggest non-call of the game went Carolina’s way when Brady Skjei whacked Kucherov in the face with his stick and voluntarily took a seat in the penalty box before the refs decided to set him free.
For the Lightning, the obvious takeaway is how insanely narrow the path to a second Stanley Cup can be.
Even if you believe Tampa Bay is the most talented team in the NHL, even if you are certain the Lightning have the depth and knowledge and experience to win any type of game, you still need to acknowledge how close they were to having this series tied after four games.
It looks like the Lightning handily won a shootout of a game Saturday, but they actually were outscored 4-3 in 5-on-5 situations. And that’s after being outscored 2-0 in 5-on-5 situations in Game 3. Yes, power-play goals count. But you can’t always count on getting power plays.
“Five-on-five wasn’t our issue,” Brind’Amour said when someone asked about Tampa Bay’s odd-man rushes. “I don’t know what game you were watching if you think that was our issue.”
Does all of this sound too morbid, because that’s not the point. The Lightning have a tremendous opportunity in front of them to be only the second franchise to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in the last 20 years.
They are that good, and that diverse.
But just because you have a roster filled with All-Stars and trophy winners and hot shot scorers doesn’t guarantee you anything. The Lightning learned that lesson in 2019 when they had the best regular season in a generation and failed to win a single postseason game.
Coach Jon Cooper alluded to that on Saturday when he was asked about getting into a high-scoring affair with Carolina.
“There was a time we were kinda the greatest show on ice a few years ago, and many times those ended up in disappointing playoff outs,” he said. “The team has this ability — it’s probably why we’ve had success the last couple of years — because we have the ability to win different ways. If you want to get in a shootout, we do have a group that can do it that way. But that’s not ideal.”
No, it’s not. And the Lightning were fortunate on Saturday that Carolina made it a lot easier for them.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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