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Burns: Three things we learned from a playoff-opening victory

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning haven’t had much success in postseason openers.

Coming into a Game 1 start-of-the-playoffs matchup against the Detroit Red Wings, the Lightning were just 1-7 in postseason openers, including a 3-2 loss to the Red Wings a year earlier at Amalie Arena.

Prior to Wednesday’s game, Bolts head coach Jon Cooper was asked how important Game 1s were to overall success in a playoff success.

“Have we even won a game one?” Cooper joked. “Seriously, I’ve been a part of five playoff series and have won only one Game 1. It’s not ideal because…if you look at the big picture, you’ve got to win four out of six, which can be a little bit more daunting. It’s not the end of the world to lose Game 1. But, I’m just going to say, we really want to win Game 1.”

Eight hours later, the Lightning showed they really wanted to win Game 1 too.

Nikita Kucherov continued to build on his monster regular season with a pair of goals against Detroit. Alex Killorn netted the game-winner by batting Tyler Johnson’s pass out of the air with the skinniest part of his stick, a playoff goal to rival his bouncing, behind-the-back tip in Game 1 of last year’s Stanley Cup Final, and Ben Bishop was, well, Ben Bishop, stopping 34-of-36 Red Wings’ shots and making crucial saves when needed most, including five over the final 70 seconds with the Bolts trying to close out the game, in a 3-2 Lightning victory.

Tampa Bay takes a one-game-to-none lead in the best-of-seven series.

We’ll examine how it happened in today’s 3 Things.

1. PARTY LIKE IT’S 2015

The 2015-16 Tampa Bay Lightning regular season could be defined by how dissimilar it was from the season prior. Whereas 2014-15 was a smooth, relaxing ride with few hiccups, 2015-16 was turbulent, unpredictable and frustratingly inconsistent complete with losing streaks followed by winning streaks followed by more losing, injuries to critical players at inopportune moments and drama-filled subplots like Steven Stamkos’ contract situation and Jonathan Drouin’s suspension.

But, if you squinted your eyes a bit and maybe tilted your head slightly, didn’t Wednesday night feel like the 2015 playoffs all over again?

The cast of characters from last season’s playoff run certainly reappeared in Game 1 vs. Detroit. Nikita Kucherov scored 10 goals in 26 playoff games last season. He’s one-fifth of the way to matching that total after netting two in Wednesday’s playoff opener. Tyler Johnson, who ended the 2015 playoffs sharing the scoring lead with Chicago’s Patrick Kane, supplied the assist on two of the Bolts’ three goals. Alex Killorn was a hot commodity after scoring nine goals and adding nine assists in last year’s playoffs. He started the Bolts’ 2016 playoff run with an assist and the game-winning goal.

Ben Bishop continued to display his penchant for prime performances in the biggest games with a solid 34-save night. Defenseman Victor Hedman broke up rushes on one end and created scoring chances at the other with his effortless skating style. Agitators like Ryan Callahan, Cedric Paquette and J.T. Brown roamed the ice like guided, heat-seeking missiles out to destroy anything moving in a red and white jersey.

In short, the formula the Lightning calculated to advance to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago was the same one they used Wednesday to take an early lead in the Detroit series.

“A lot of guys played really well tonight,” Hedman said. “Hopefully, we can keep it going.”

With Anton Stralman out for this series and Stamkos’ playoff status in question, players like Hedman, Kucherov, Bishop, etc. will be counted on even more to power the Lightning.

“It’s definitely tough when you lose big parts of your team like that, but everyone else has to step up and do their part,” Johnson said. “We can’t sulk in it. Detroit’s not going to do us any favors. We’ve just got to play our game and guys have to step up like they did and I thought the entire team played extremely well.”

2. DON’T PANIC

After the Lightning opened scoring in Game 1 on Nikita Kucherov’s rocket one-timer from just inside the right circle in the first period, Detroit gained the lead early in the second with a pair of goals 1:56 apart, a one-two haymaker combination that left the Bolts reeling.

But it didn’t knock them to the canvas.

Last year’s playoff experience showed this team they can rally from any situation. In this same series a year ago, the Lightning looked like a team about to make another early postseason exit down two games to one and trailing 2-0 in Detroit with less than six minutes remaining in Game 4.

But Tyler Johnson scored with five-and-a-half minutes to go, and Ondrej Palat leveled the score a little more than 60 seconds later. Johnson completed the improbable comeback with a goal 2:25 into overtime, the come-from-behind win propelling Tampa Bay to an opening-series victory over the Red Wings and carrying them throughout their postseason run.

And it continues to provide hope in these playoffs when the situation appears bleak.

“It definitely helps having that experience, and I think you could add all the adversity we went through this year,” Johnson said. “This group’s been through a lot together. We’re a family. We rely on one another, and we know that everyone’s going to stick up for one another.”

When Victor Hedman thought he had provided the go-ahead goal in the third period but had it taken off the board after Detroit successfully challenged that the play was offsides, there was no head hanging on the Lightning bench.

“Our bench knew it was going to be a no-goal beforehand,” Johnson said. “We were able to see the instant replay before the linesman, so we were ready for that. On the bench, all we said was we want to keep on rolling, keep on going. For us, we just battled back.”

Exactly two minutes later, Killorn netted the game-winner, this time for good. Behind the Detroit goal, Kucherov knocked the puck away from Darren Helm and up the boards to Johnson, who sent the puck from a sharp angle on net, where Killorn was charging to bat it out of the air.

“We were playing some good hockey in the third period,” Hedman said. “We got some long shifts on them in their D zone and we did a lot of good things.”

3. FINISHING THE JOB

Near the end of the regular season, the Lightning went into Madison Square Garden with a chance to clinch a spot in the postseason and scored two quick goals in the first period to go up 2-0.

But after that opening period, the Bolts played a passive game over the final 40 minutes, seemingly content with just sitting on the lead. The Rangers capitalized on the shift in playing style, becoming the aggressor and taking the game to the Lightning in the second and third periods to score three unanswered goals and win 3-2.

Perhaps Tampa Bay learned a valuable lesson in that late-season letdown.

On Wednesday, after grabbing the lead with nearly 11 minutes remaining in Game 1, the Lightning didn’t sink back into a defensive shell to protect their lead. Instead, they continued to skate aggressively, continued looking for Grade-A scoring chances and continued to keep the Red Wings on their heels.

As a result, the Bolts never looked in danger of surrendering their lead over the second half of the third period. They carried the momentum from Killorn’s goal over the final 11 minutes to effectively ice the game.

“Playing with the lead, we weren’t sitting back,” Hedman said. “We were playing aggressive and playing to our strengths.”

That closers mentality will serve the Lightning well over the course of the 2016 playoffs.

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