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Burns: Three things we learned from a return trip to the Eastern Conference Final

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

The reigning Eastern Conference champions will get the chance to defend their title.

The Tampa Bay Lightning took care of business at home on Sunday, shutting out the New York Islanders 4-0 with an opportunity to clinch the Second Round series in Game 5. The Lightning move on to face the winner between Washington and Pittsburgh to determine the East’s representative in the Stanley Cup Final.

In reaching the Eastern Conference title bout, the Bolts needed just 10 games to get there, winning both First and Second Round series by a 4-1 count.

By comparison, last year’s Lightning squad needed 13 games and some late-game heroics in a seven-game First Round series versus Detroit to get to the ECF.

Tampa Bay makes its fourth ECF in franchise history and will go for the third time in the six seasons since Steve Yzerman took over as GM

The Islanders presented a formidable challenge, winning Game 1 to take the home-ice advantage away from the Lightning. But Tampa Bay rallied from one-goal deficits three times in Game 3 in Brooklyn, including scoring with 39 seconds remaining and the goalie pulled to force overtime, where Brian Boyle would win it a few minutes in, a loss that crushed the spirit of the Isles.

Another overtime loss at home in Game 4 signaled the beginning of the end for New York.

Game 5 was just a 60-minute-long victory celebration for the Lightning in front of their appreciative fans.

The Bolts won’t play at home for at least a week as they start the next round on the road. Until then, let’s relive yesterday’s performance in our Second Round domination edition of 3 Things.

1. COMPLETE PERFORMANCE

The Lightning played their best game of the 2016 playoffs in Game 5 versus New York.

The one area the Bolts struggled in the Second Round was their start. The Islanders dominated the opening period, particularly in Brooklyn, and forced the Bolts to play catchup for a lot of the series.

When the Lightning started the opening period of Game 5 in command and scored twice to open a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes, the rest of the game was pretty much a formality, the Islanders feeling resigned to their fate.

The Lightning simply weren’t going to be denied in Game 5. They weren’t going back to Brooklyn, and they weren’t going to blow a chance to get some much-needed rest before gearing up for the second half of the postseason run.

“I think we learned last year, we had a couple series where we had chances to close them out at home and we kind of let that slip,” Lightning goalie Ben Bishop said. “I said it last series, I really wanted to take pride in closing teams out. Now we’ve done it two series in a row. Maybe the long travel being in Tampa, you don’t want to get on airplanes to go back up north.”

Pretty much everything went right for the Lightning in Game 5. The quick start resulted in a 2-0 lead. The Bolts broke through on the power play when Victor Hedman ripped a slapper from the edge of the left circle for a 3-0 advantage in the second period. Nikita Kucherov re-took the playoff goal lead by netting his ninth of the postseason on a third-period breakaway. And the Bolts defense, backed by Vezina Trophy finalist Bishop, limited the amount of good looks for the Islanders to but a precious few. Anything that did get through on net was quickly gobbled up by Bishop.

“We played a really good game (Sunday) I think, played with a lot of pace, played with a lot of emotion,” said Hedman, who set Lightning franchise playoff records for goals (4) and points (8) in a series by a defenseman. “It’s obviously a great feeling going through, and we’ll refocus and enjoy this one tonight and get ready for the next round.”

2. THE TWO Bs

At his post-Second Round press conference, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper was asked how, over the Bolts’ last five playoff series wins, they’ve only surrendered one goal total in the final game of those series.

His reply?

“Two words; they both start with Bs,” Cooper said, eliciting laughter from the assembled media

Brian Boyle, not the two Bs Cooper was referring to, said the Lightning have a special player in their net.

“The numbers don’t really lie,” he said. “If you go back and slow down some of the saves he made tonight, I don’t know how many deflected or changed direction but he was there. He was huge. I’ve said it a million times, the way he communicates and dictates the play and can sort things out in the D zone even as he’s trying to play goal, it’s just so impressive. The way he can play the puck, he’s as complete a player for a goalie as you can get I think.”

Ben Bishop made all 28 saves against the Islanders in Game 5, recording his second shutout of these playoffs, fifth shutout of his playoff career and fourth shutout with a chance to clinch a playoff series.

In NHL history, only one player, Martin Brodeur, has produced more shutouts in series-clinching games (5) and only two others have reached four.

Let that sink in: having played in only two postseasons, Bishop has accomplished a feat less than a handful of goalies have accomplished in nearly 100 years.

Bishop improved to 8-2 in the 2016 playoffs.

How is he able to elevate his game the higher the stakes?

“I don’t know, just try to stick with the system,” Bishop answered when asked that question in the locker room following Game 5. “Obviously, got a couple lucky bounces tonight. I don’t know, maybe it’s a little luck.”

No need to be modest, Bish, it’s skill.

Lightning fans have seen it for three-and-a-half seasons.

The rest of the hockey world is getting another reminder in these playoffs.

3. THE OPPONENT

So who do the Lightning want to play in the next round: Pittsburgh or Washington?

Conventional wisdom would suggest the Penguins. The Lightning won all three games against Pittsburgh during the regular season (two at home, one in Pittsburgh) and scored 15 goals combined.

Plus, a matchup against the Penguins would kind of bring this season full circle, as it was in Johnstown, Penn., where the Lightning took part in the unique Kraftville U.S.A. preseason game against Pittsburgh with a national TV audience, the Hanson Brothers from Slap Shot and an entire Pennsylvania steel town in attendance.

The Bolts were winless (0-3-0) versus Washington (two road losses, one home defeat) and suffered one of their toughest losses of the season to the Caps in D.C., blowing a 3-0 second-period lead and watching helplessly as the Caps scored four goals in the third period in a demoralizing 5-3 loss.

Washington won the Presidents’ Trophy after finishing the regular season with 120 points, outpacing the rest of the NHL by a wide margin (Dallas was second with 109 points).

But Pittsburgh might be the hottest team in the league.

After struggling to get into position to even reach the postseason, the Penguins won 14 of their final 16 games of the regular season to finish second in the Eastern Conference. Their scorching play has continued in the playoffs, where they dismissed the New York Rangers in five quick games and opened up a 3-1 lead on the Capitals in a Second Round matchup before the Caps took Game 5 on Saturday.

Pittsburgh will host Game 6 on Tuesday, and the Lightning might know their Eastern Conference Final opponent about two-and-a-half hours after puck drop. Or, if necessary, Game 7 will be played Thursday at D.C.’s Verizon Center.

Whichever way the Pittsburgh-Washington series falls, the Lightning will face a much more formidable challenge in the upcoming round than the Red Wings or Islanders presented.

But, with the way this Lightning squad has come together during the postseason, I don’t think any potential playoff opponent worries the Bolts.

In fact, it should be the remaining teams worried about a playoff-experienced Lightning team still in the hunt for the Cup.

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