The Lightning had just tied the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Final with Pittsburgh at 2-2. The series would turn in to a best-of-three. As far as Cooper was concerned, that fact was the only one that mattered.
“When you play 40 playoff games in the last two years, you’re used to things like that,” Cooper said, referring to the Penguins’ furious third-period blitzkrieg in which they rallied from a 4-0 deficit to close to 4-3 with 6:52 to go. “…You know, the one thing on the bench was it doesn’t matter how you get there. Whether you’re up 4-0, it becomes 4-3, or you’re down 3-0 and you go ahead 4-3, it doesn’t matter. You’re still winning…When you wake up in the morning, it’s not how they came back and made it a game.”
Tampa Bay’s mission Friday was clear: don’t go to Pittsburgh down 3-1.
The Lightning gave their fans a few nervy moments in the final period as the Penguins wouldn’t go away quietly. “We elevated the heart rate of (19,000) people in the building tonight,” Cooper said.
But their purposeful play over the first two periods to build a 4-0 lead in a closest-thing-to-a-must-win game couldn’t be undone in the Penguins push at the pole.
Tampa Bay was in this position last season, tied 2-2 in an Eastern Conference Final, two of the final three games on the road.
The Bolts won both road games over the New York Rangers to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
Will past experience give them the edge this year against the Penguins?
We’ll start to find out Sunday in Game 5 at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center.
Ahead, 3 Things from a necessary bounce-back win for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
1. MORE SHOTS, MORE GOALS
Seems simple enough
The more shots you take, the more chances you have to score.
That truism escaped the Lightning in the first three games of the series. The Bolts took 20, 21 and 28 shots, respectively, through the first three games, and the 28 shots in Game 3 a misnomer because Pittsburgh countered with 48.
The Bolts needed to fix plenty after a soul-searching loss in Game 3. Getting more shots to rookie goaltender Matt Murray’s net was one of them.
In the first period of Game 4, Tampa Bay registered 18 shots, as many as the first two periods of Game 3 combined. By the end of the second period of Game 4, the Lightning had collected 30 shots to Pittsburgh’s 22.
They also had a 4-0 lead.
“You know, obviously you make tweaks and adjustments throughout a series,” the Lightning’s Ryan Callahan said. “Game to game, you’re changing things and looking at their tendencies. We did some things different tonight that I thought we were successful with, but more than just your tactics or your systems, I thought it was our energy, our compete, the way we executed was a lot better than it was in the previous game. And I think that was the biggest adjustment rather than the Xs and Os.”
It wasn’t just the quantity of shots the Lightning sent toward Murray that eventually chased the 21-year-old after two periods. The Bolts probed the Penguins defense to get pucks into dangerous spots. In Game 3, most of Tampa Bay’s shots came from outside the scoring zone.
In Game 4, the Lightning were more patient and responsible with the puck once they crossed the blue line.
“They kind of ran our show in Game 3, and we answered,” Brian Boyle said. “Now it’s a tight series.”
2. STARTING WITH PURPOSE
The Lightning knew a quick start would be a big key to winning Game 4.
But even they couldn’t have envisioned owning a 1-0 lead just 27 seconds in.
The Bolts set the tone from the opening shift, Ryan Callahan -- admittedly playing with “a little bit more energy” four days removed from the flu bug that kept him out of Game 2 -- leading the supply of physical, we’re-going-to-outwork-you determination that produced the game’s opening goal.
Callahan fought through a pair of Penguins behind the Pens’ to slide the puck along the boards to J.T. Brown, who sent the puck back to the left point for Victor Hedman.
Hedman slung the puck toward the net, and by that time, Callahan had worked his way to the edge of the crease, where he was able to get a piece of the shot and tip it past Murray.
“Playing against him for many years, you’re obviously happy to have him on your team now,” Hedman said. “Just the way he prepares himself for every game, and he lays it on the line every night. That’s the kind of players that you need on a winning team. Just go for those hard areas in front of the net, and the first goal is an example of what he does, great tip and got us going obviously.”
The Lightning carried that momentum over the course of the period, and got on the board again when Nikita Kucherov laced a cross-ice pass onto the tape of Andrej Sustr at the back post. Sustr connected with the one-timer for his second-ever playoff goal.
“The energy in the building after we scored (the first goal), it just pushed us, and we carried that through,” Cooper said.
The Lightning started Game 3 with a big push too. It didn’t last however, and the Penguins started to take control of the game from the first 10 minutes on.
On Friday, the Bolts were able to sustain that push, mainly due to the fact they were playing with the lead and, as a result, with confidence too.
“We played okay in Game 3 to start; we had something to show for it in Game 4,” Brian Boyle said succinctly.
Tampa Bay’s desperation was borne out of a feeling that if they didn’t win Game 4 and had to travel back to Pittsburgh facing an elimination Game 5, its season might be quickly coming to a close.
“Tonight, we showed a will in that department of being physical and kind of digging our heels in,” Cooper said. “And Callahan and Boyle, Brown, (Cedric) Paquette, (Ondrej) Palat, you just go down the list, and those guys, that’s what they were doing, and that gave us a huge lift.”
It also left the series even at 2-2, the team that can win two of the next three advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.
3. STARS ALIGNING
After Game 3, I wrote in this column the Lightning needed to get more out of proven NHL playoff performers like Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman.
Entering Game 4, Hedman had but two assists in the ECF. Kucherov was shut out in Games 1 and 2 before providing two assists in Game 3.
The Bolts needed a little more from their superstars though. Kucherov, tied for the playoff goal lead with San Jose’s Joe Pavelski, hadn’t netted one since Game 5 of the Islanders series and was on a playoff-long three game goal drought.
Hedman too was unable to find the back of the net after supplying four critical goals over five games of the Second Round.
In Game 4, Kucherov and Hedman played their best games of the ECF and were two of the Lightning’s best players on the ice.
And when those two are on their game, well, you see the results.
Kucherov and Hedman didn’t score, but each tallied two assists, two of three Bolts – Alex Killorn was the other – with multiple points, and dictated play for portions of the game. Their impact on the game was immediate and sustained.
They had help too.
Tyler Johnson continued moving up the Lightning all-time playoff goal leaderboard, his 20th career postseason goal putting the Bolts up 4-0. Kucherov set it up, throwing the puck toward the front of the net and into traffic, Johnson getting a piece of the puck with his body to redirect it home.
Jonathan Drouin provided a huge lift with his early second period power-play goal, his initial option to pass into the crease from the edge of the goal blocked but right back to him for an easy sitter.
Killorn quietly continues to have maybe the most consistent postseason of any Tampa Bay player, his helpers on the second and fourth goals giving him his fourth multi-point game of the playoffs.
And Andrei Vasilevskiy, getting his second-ever back-to-back starts and first in the playoffs, also got his first playoff victory as a starter after stopping 35-of-38 shots, the Lightning again overworking the 21-year-old by allowing too many shots but the youngster up for the challenge.
Friday’s win was a complete team win.
“It was our effort, our will, and, as I said earlier, we just played a better game tonight,” Cooper said. “We were a determined group.”