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Burns: Three things we learned from 11 goals in 63:33

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

Before the Eastern Conference Final series against the New York Rangers, Lightning players and coaches were asked repeatedly how they planned to score against Henrik Lundqvist, one of the best goaltenders in the world who always seems to be at the top of his game in the postseason.

Three games into the ECF, that talk has turned to, “Can Lundqvist stop anything the Bolts send his way?”

Lundqvist gave up 20 goals through the first two rounds (12 games) of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs.

He’s allowed more than half that total (12) to the Lightning in two games alone. Tampa Bay has put up six goals in back-to-back performances to take a two-games-to-one lead in the best-of-seven series. They needed all six in Wednesday’s Game 3, as New York rallied from 4-2 down and behind 5-4 to force overtime before Nikita Kucherov finally put the Rangers away with his third game-winning goal of the postseason.

Can the Lightning keep their current pace throughout the remainder of the ECF? Probably not, but with this team, anything’s possible right?

Three Things we learned from a Game 3 that featured 11 goals in a little more than 60 minute

1. EMERGENCE OF A SECONDARY SCORING LINE

The Triplets have been garnering headlines during the Eastern Conference Final, and for good reason. The combination of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov has accounted for 16 of the Lightning’s 35 points in the ECF. Johnson recorded the first hat trick in Lightning history in Game 2, tied Ruslan Fedotenko and Brad Richards for most Bolts goals all-time in a single playoffs and leads the NHL in scoring (18 points) and goals (12) as of Thursday morning.

Under the radar, however, the line of Alex Killorn, Valtteri Filppula and Steven Stamkos have provided the Lightning a dangerous, prolific secondary scoring line.

Killorn scored his third goal in the last two games and has six in the postseason, tied for fifth-most in the NHL. Stamkos got the Lightning on the board last night when they were down 2-0 and in desperate need of a goal and has five scores in these playoffs. And Filppula has steadily provided the aforementioned pair the opportunity to score with his superior puck possession and timely, accurate passing.

On the NHL’s points leaderboard currently, Johnson and Kucherov rank first and tied for second respectively. Right behind, tied for fourth are Killorn and Stamkos, who each have 14 points.

“(The Triplets have) been unbelievable for us and other guys had to step up,” Stamkos said following Game 3. “I think with (Filppula) and (Killorn) and I, we’ve found some chemistry, we got some things going and both guys on my line are playing great. I’m definitely feeling good myself. I think we were physically engaged as a line, we played well defensively, we were rewarded with our efforts tonight and we want to continue to build on that because it’s a good feeling when you can help your team.”

Stamkos’ inability to score during the First Round against Detroit was a major storyline of the NHL Playoffs. A move to the wing, though, has allowed Stamkos to “save his legs” and frees him up “from spending too much time in the D zone” according to Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, and the aftermath has been hugely impactful. Killorn-Filppula-Stamkos have combined for 11 of the Lightning’s 35 total points in the ECF.

“(Filppula) sees the ice,” Cooper said. “He can get those pucks to Stammer…Killorn’s quietly having himself a pretty darn good playoff when everybody’s kind of looking at the Triplets…When all the attention’s put on some guys, we know we’ve got other guys in the bank. Everybody’s contributing.”

2. WHAT DEFICIT?

Even though the Lightning found themselves down two goals in the first 10 minutes of the game, there was no panic on the Bolts bench.

Tampa Bay controlled play from the opening puck drop and produced numerous quality chances in the early stages but were unfortunate to give up a pair of goals under difficult-to-stop circumstances.

“It was one of those games where we never, ever felt we were out of this game,” Cooper said. “I was actually more impressed with how we came back after we were down 2-0.”

The ability to rally from a two-goal deficit in an Eastern Conference Final game is another sign of just how much the Lightning have matured during these 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“To me, that was, as I’ve grown and we’ve grown together as a team, there was a time early in the infancy of our team where we would have not come back from that,” Cooper said. “But, that was a huge goal by Stammer [down 2-0], and it got our mojo because, actually, we were down 2-0, but I thought we were playing pretty well. We had the puck the whole time, and they get an early power play that was our bad and then that kind of unfortunate thing that happened to (Matt) Carle and all of a sudden, they’ve got a breakaway…It’s the growth of this team is they don’t think, ‘oh, poor us’ anymore. It’s ‘ok, let’s go out and win this game,’ and that’s what they did.”

The Lightning have learned throughout this season no deficit is too large to overcome, especially with the depth in scoring the team possesses.

“You can’t play unbelievable, perfect hockey every game,” Stamkos said. “We had that in spurts today, but we’ve got to shore up some areas. But when you can find a way like that, it just builds confidence.”

3. KUCHEROV STEPS INTO THE SPOTLIGHT

Last season, Nikita Kucherov was in and out of the lineup, the Russian forward an inconsistent performer trying to find his way in the NHL. Despite scoring in Game 1 against Montreal in the 2014 First Round series, Kucherov was a healthy scratch in two of the series’ four games.

Up-and-down a season ago, Kucherov has emerged as not only a full-time starter but a potential superstar in only his second year in the league. Since joining Palat and Johnson in the eighth game of the regular season at Winnipeg because of injuries to others, the trio has emerged as quite possibly the NHL’s most formidable line.

Certainly it’s been the league’s best in the 2015 playoffs.

“We’re getting spoiled, kind of getting used to it,” Ben Bishop said. “The three of them have such good chemistry. They feed off each other. It’s good for them everybody else is getting a chance to see them play on the big stage because we’ve kind of been spoiled out here being able to watch them play all this year and most of last year. They’re three great players, and you put them together and they’re pretty unbelievable.”

Kucherov’s seven playoff goals ranked tied for third in the league behind only Johnson and Anaheim’s Corey Perry (8). His 16 points are tied with Perry for second in NHL playoff scoring.

Even more impressive than his production, however, is his humility. Asked how it felt to score the game-winning, overtime goal in Wednesday’s nailbiter, Kucherov deflected attention away from himself and onto the team.

“We don’t look at the stats, just play our game,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who scores. We just play as a team. We win as a team. We lose as a team. It doesn’t matter who scores.”

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