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The Lightning don’t have momentum, they have moxie

John Romano | Days after looking like a bewildered bunch, the Lightning have regrouped again to tie the series against the Rangers.
We've seen this scene before. Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) and wing Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrate Stamkos’ goal during the third period of Tuesday night's 4-1 win in Game 4.
We've seen this scene before. Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) and wing Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrate Stamkos’ goal during the third period of Tuesday night's 4-1 win in Game 4. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jun. 8|Updated Jun. 8

TAMPA — This is what patience looks like. This is what trust looks like.

It is unhappy, but never exasperated. It is frustrated, but never panics. It is a hockey team that can look slow and befuddled at the start of a series, and then calmly reverse its fortunes in 48 hours.

Say hello to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

They weren’t quite facing the abyss in the Eastern Conference final against the New York Rangers, but they were close enough to feel a cool breeze at their backs. They responded by winning a thriller in Game 3, and then romping to a 4-1 victory in Game 4 on Tuesday night.

Just like that, the series is tied and is now a best-of-three affair.

“We were just making some poor decisions, and if you want to move on you have to tighten that stuff up. And we have,” coach Jon Cooper said. “Are we perfect? No. But are we giving ourselves a chance? We are.”

This is what experience looks like. This is what confidence looks like.

It is a team that was outscored 8-2 in 5-on-5 situations in the first two games of the series, and then self-corrected to outscore the Rangers 4-0 in evenhanded situations in the next two games.

That stuff doesn’t happen by accident. And it isn’t the first time the Lightning have done it. They also struggled 5-on-5 in the first two games of the Toronto series, getting outscored 5-2 before coming back to outscore the Maple Leafs the rest of the way.

It’s almost as if the Lightning are predators taking the measure of their prey before figuring out the easiest path to evisceration.

“I don’t think we were really satisfied or encouraged with our effort the first two games, and we knew we were going to make some adjustments,” said captain Steven Stamkos, who scored a third-period goal on a rebound Tuesday night. “The coaching staff threw together a gameplan, something that isn’t new to us but something that we needed to focus on a little more.”

Basically, the Lightning got back to doing what made them Stanley Cup champions the past two years. That means tough defense, that means staying out of the penalty box, that means getting away from so many careless turnovers that were leading to odd-man rushes.

The Lightning had 50 giveaways in the first two games, and only 15 the past two games. The long layoff after the sweep of Florida may have caused the Lightning to get off to a slow start in New York, but it shouldn’t have led to as many silly mistakes.

“Don’t underestimate how hard it is to play in the playoffs. Extreme, intense games and then take 10 days off. You can’t replicate that coming in,” Cooper said. “And we’re playing a really strong Rangers team who was coming off a couple of big emotional series wins. And they took it to us.

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“Having said that, clearly we had some puck management issues.”

Tightening up the puck-handling was key, and so was avoiding the penalty box. After giving up almost four power plays a game in the first three games, the Lightning had only two on Tuesday night.

The Rangers are lethal on the power play — all three of their goals at Amalie Arena this week were with a man advantage — and so careless stick penalties have to be avoided.

Based on the way the past two games have gone, the Lightning could take control of the series if they force New York into a 5-on-5 game.

New York coach Gerard Gallant, obviously, doesn’t see it that way. When asked about Tampa Bay’s dominance in 5-on-5 in Game 4, he chose to look at the bigger picture.

“I’m not a big stats guys, but I think we’ve done pretty well in the playoffs 5-on-5,” Gallant said. “We’re five or six goals above, I think. We’re a better team (statistically) than they are 5-on-5 in the playoffs. What do you want me to say?”

There’s no guarantee these trends will continue in Game 5. Throughout the postseason, New York has been a far better team while playing at Madison Square Garden.

But now that the Lightning have a better sense of what the Rangers want to do, they may also have a better chance at slowing them down.

That is what veteran teams do.

That is what champions do.

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

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