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For the first time in two years, the Lightning have a fight on their hands

John Romano | Columbus, Boston, New York, Dallas, Florida, Carolina. The Lightning led each series 3-1. Now, they’re tied 2-2 with the Islanders.
Will this save by Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock (6) on a last-second shot by Ryan McDonagh (27) be the beginning of the end or just another vivid memory on the way to another Stanley Cup final for the Lightning?
Will this save by Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock (6) on a last-second shot by Ryan McDonagh (27) be the beginning of the end or just another vivid memory on the way to another Stanley Cup final for the Lightning? [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 20
Updated Jun. 20

Sometimes, memories take a while to find a place in your heart.

They might start off bitter and, against all odds, are eventually recalled fondly. Or they could start ominously, and slowly grow even worse.

To tell you the truth, Game 4 could go either way.

You’ve got to admit, it was a glorious affair. Twenty-five minutes of on-the-edge action, 15 minutes of misery, and then 19:58 seconds of absolute hair-raising, super-charged suspense that ended with an empty net and a last-second block for the ages.

Yes, the Lightning lost to the Islanders 3-2 to even the series after four games and there is no joy in that for a Tampa Bay fan. But the story does not end here, and neither will the memories. Games 5, 6, and possibly 7, are still to come.

And, because of that, Ryan McDonagh’s final spinning shot will either be recalled as an indelible moment on the way to further glory, or the beginning of the end for the 2021 Tampa Bay Lightning.

“Now,” Lightning forward Tyler Johnson said, “it’s a best-of-three.”

The Lightning at least made the game interesting after a dreadful second period when they gave up three goals in 12 minutes and looked like they were hopelessly behind. Brayden Point became the first player in more than 20 years to score goals in seven consecutive playoff games, and then Johnson added another goal three minutes later.

“We got close, but you never really want to be in that situation,” Johnson said. “But the guys responded.”

For a while, it felt like Tampa Bay’s best chance to tie the game had come and gone. The Islanders had retaken control of the game’s flow, and a late Victor Hedman penalty meant the Lightning were going to finish regulation a man down.

But a perfect pass from Nikita Kucherov to McDonagh in the final seconds offered one last chance for redemption. Standing slightly to the right of the net, McDonagh spun around and drew goaltender Semyon Varlamov out of the crease. McDonagh’s backhanded shot did not have a lot of oomph, but he was only a handful of feet away and the New York net was wide open.

And that’s when defenseman Ryan Pulock came skating in from the left side of the net and stopped the puck as time expired.

“Really, I couldn’t see anything. I was just trying to make sure I got it towards the net,” McDonagh said. “I knew the goalie was coming out and I was just trying to get something down towards the net.”

Now we know why teams don’t often win consecutive titles in the NHL. No matter how talented a returning champion might be, the road to the Stanley Cup is still a grind.

This isn’t the NBA, where a couple of players can dominate a series night after night. This isn’t Major League Baseball, where so much is dependent on the starting pitcher. This isn’t the NFL, where a team’s entire postseason can be completed in three games.

To be honest, this is how the rest of the NHL lives. Teams typically do not close out a series with days to spare round after round.

In some ways, the Lightning have spoiled us. They may have had hiccups in the first few games of a series, but for the past two postseasons they have always been in control long before a showdown got too antsy.

The Lightning have had a 3-1 series lead in their last six playoff matchups, making Games 4, 5 and 6 feel more like coronations than conflicts. Tampa Bay didn’t even get a whiff of Game 7 during last year’s title run, nor during the current postseason.

Now, for the first time in two postseasons, the Lightning are tied 2-2 going into Game 5.

“These guys have given it their all now for whatever it’s been, a month and change, and sometimes you lay an egg. We laid one in the second period,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

“You realize how precious every period is, and every shift is. It’s one of those, if you do bend you can’t break, and that second period we broke. It was a little self-inflicted, but proud of those guys for the push in the third period.”

So remember this one. Remember the good and remember the bad.

A week from now, you may be talking about that awful second period and the McDonagh near-miss as the moment you realized a second Stanley Cup was never going to be guaranteed.

Or a month from now, it will be just one more dramatic detail on the road to another championship.

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

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