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The Lightning have become the new standard for cool in the NHL

John Romano | No moment is too big, no game is too critical. A 2-1 win against the Islanders is one more example of Tampa Bay’s mental toughness.
Lightning center Yanni Gourde (37) celebrates with his team after beating New York Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov (40) for the first score of the game in the first period of Game 3.
Lightning center Yanni Gourde (37) celebrates with his team after beating New York Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov (40) for the first score of the game in the first period of Game 3. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 18

Once upon a time, this was a team with more personality than heart. Watching them now, that’s almost hard to believe.

Oh, Tampa Bay still has an outsized number of stars, and a good bit of flash from night to night. But the Lightning have evolved from a group that was untrustworthy under pressure to a team that never faces a moment too big to handle.

Take Thursday night’s 2-1 win against the Islanders in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup semifinals. It wasn’t a must-win showdown, but it had all the characteristics of a game that could be a turning point in the postseason.

The Islanders are a disciplined team. A hungry team. A veteran team with a premier coach and a vendetta after last season’s Eastern Conference final loss to Tampa Bay.

And yet the Lightning beat New York at its own game on Thursday.

No theatrics, no fights, no costly penalties. Just a couple of clutch goals, and a lot of blocked shots. It was the fourth time in the last two postseasons that the Lightning have gone into Game 3 tied at 1-1, and for the fourth time they have taken the series lead.

“It just goes to show the maturity of the group,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos.

You may recall, it hasn’t always been that way around here. The Lightning blew a series lead against Chicago in the 2015 Stanley Cup final and against Pittsburgh and Washington in the 2016 and ’18 Eastern Conference finals.

No team won more consistently in the regular season, and suffered more heartbreak in the postseason, than Tampa Bay during a frustrating six-year apprenticeship.

But all that losing triggered something remarkable within them, and the Lightning have since become the team that defines cool. They are deep, yes. They are talented, of course. But they have also become the NHL standard for mental toughness.

“They’ve found a recipe. It took us some time, there were ups and downs prior to 2020, everybody witnessed them,” coach Jon Cooper said. “There’s a true belief of what needs to be done. Like I said, there’s a recipe to it.

“They understand there’s a process to everything. It’s process over outcomes. And if you stick with it, good things usually happen. And they’ve done that.”

You are taught that every game matters. That it’s important to be at your best whenever the whistle blows.

But, of course, that’s not entirely true. There are moments when a series, when a season, is on its edge.

Game 3 can often be one of those moments.

Obviously, a team that wins Game 1 of a seven-game series has the upper hand. But the reality is, there is still ample time for the losing team to recover, and no need to be unduly alarmed.

It’s a lot different when you get to Game 3 and a series is tied 1-1. There have been 114 occasions in the NHL’s semifinal round that teams have split the first two games. The victor in Game 3 has gone on to win the series 78.1 percent of the time. That means the losing team in Game 3 has only reached the Stanley Cup final 21.9 percent of the time.

Think about what an enormous swing in fortunes that is. Both teams begin the game with a 50/50 chance of winning the series and by the time the night ends, one team is practically a 4-to-1 favorite.

The Lightning jumped out to a 1-0 lead on Thursday on a Yanni Gourde goal, but the Islanders tied it up in the second period on a goal off a scrum in front of the net.

That should have been a momentum swing. That should have energized the Islanders in front of their home crowd. In past years, that might have led to a breakdown in Tampa Bay’s structure.

Instead, the Lightning took advantage of the only power play they got and Brayden Point scored seconds after the man-advantage ended.

“We constantly lean on that experience,” Stamkos said. “The more games like this that you play, whether it was last year in the playoffs or in the regular season, this group knows to flip that switch when the time comes.

“We’ve proved that in the past, we’ve proved it again here in the playoffs. It’s a battle each and every night, and the further you go the tougher the task is.”

A Game 3 win does not guarantee anything. Lightning fans should know that from years past.

But there is also something different about this team. We saw it in the postseason in 2020, and we’re seeing it again this month. The bigger the moment, the more impressive the Lightning seem to get.

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

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