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Burns: Three things we learned from taking a 3-1 series lead

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

What is it about Game 4s at Joe Louis Arena that produces some of the most iconic moments in Tampa Bay Lightning playoff history?

Last season, we saw the unlikeliest of comebacks, the Lightning, having been completely outplayed through two-plus periods, trailing 2-0 with six minutes to go and in danger of falling behind 3-1 in the series. Tyler Johnson provided Bolts fans a glimmer of hope, scoring with 5:26 to play, Ondrej Palat tied the game a little over a minute later and Johnson completed the epic rally in overtime, his back-post one-timer off a 3-on-1 rush sending Detroit fans scurrying for the exits.

The score?

3-2 Lightning

Tuesday’s Game 4 provided another memorable Tampa Bay victory at the Joe: A beleaguered power play guided by a beleaguered player both delivering at a crucial point in the season; the Bolts opening up a 2-0 lead only to see Detroit mount a Game 4-comeback of its own; the entire arena going nuts when Dylan Larkin put the Red Wings in front for the first time only the puck never crossed the goal line and play continued; Palat netting the game-winner with just under three minutes to go.

The score?

3-2 Lightning

Tampa Bay has a chance to close out the Red Wings Thursday night in Game 5 at Amalie Arena.

How were the Lightning able to take a commanding three-games-to-one lead in the series?

We’ll guide you through all the Game 4 action in today’s 3 Things.

1. HOW YA LIKE THAT POWER PLAY NOW?

Let’s face it: Tampa Bay’s power play has been pretty nonexistent all season.

The Lightning PP converted just 15.8 percent of its opportunities during the regular season, which ranked tied for 27th in the NHL, ahead of only Toronto (15.4%) and Winnipeg (14.8%).

Toronto and Winnipeg also finished the regular season with the worst record in their respective divisions

Tampa Bay entered the postseason last among playoff teams for power-play success.

The futility continued into the Detroit series, the Bolts going just 1-for-14 (7.1%) through the first three games.

But during Monday’s practice ahead of Game 4, the Lightning worked almost exclusively on the power play throughout the entirety of the session. And that extra work paid big dividends for the Bolts a day later.

The Lightning connected on three of its five power-play opportunities in Game 4 and was the main reason the Bolts were able to leave Detroit just one game away from advancing to the Second Round.

Tampa Bay was handed the game’s first power play when Detroit’s Justin Abdelkader was sent to the penalty box for holding at 5:32 of the opening period. Nine second later, Nikita Kucherov one-timed Tyler Johnson’s cross-ice pass into the back of the net for an early 1-0 lead for the Lightning, Kucherov scoring the game’s opening goal for the third time in the series.

“It’s huge for us to be able to come through as a PP and help the team out because there’s been other games where we haven’t been able to do that,” Johnson said. “For us to be able to do that in a big game like it was tonight was huge.”

The Bolts power play wasn’t finished, however.

Not by a long shot

Midway through the second period with the Lightning still holding their 1-0 lead, Jonathan Drouin got an open power-play look from the left dot. Rather than shoot, however, Drouin baited the defense toward him and passed into the slot for Kucherov, who buried the one-timer.

“Take away everything we did, it was the confidence they had,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “There was no rushing. They were calm. They were poised. They were making plays, and the end result was the puck was ending up in the back of the net.”

The power play connected when it counted most too. Detroit rallied to tie the game 2-2 late in the second period and carried over that momentum into the third. The Bolts were on their back heels for much of the final period but were given an opportunity to regain the lead late in the game when Jonathan Ericsson was whistled for cross-checking.

Again, the power play came through.

With time running out on the advantage, Drouin got the puck on the right dot. He spotted Ondrej Palat in an advantageous spot in front of the net, zipped a pass into the slot and Palat redirected the puck past Detroit goalie Petr Mrazek for the game-winner.

All three Lightning goals in Game 4 came courtesy of the power play.

“We switched our units up a little bit, and we put the puck in the hands of the guys that know what to do with it and kind of challenged them a little bit,” Cooper said. “…Hopefully this keeps going because it would be a big boost for us.”

2. LARKIN’S NON-GOAL SWUNG MOMENTUM BOLTS WAY

Joe Louis Arena was buzzing.

Detroit, down 2-0 halfway through the game, had rebounded to score twice, including a late goal with 10 seconds left in the second period, to level the score.

The Red Wings picked up in the third period where they left off in the second, taking the game to the Lightning and creating a number of quality scoring chances.

With a little more than seven minutes to go in the game and the Red Wings on a power play, Dylan Larkin was alone in front of Ben Bishop with the puck on his stick. Larkin scooped a backhanded shot at the goal that beat the Bolts goalie.

The crowd erupted.

Detroit fans were hugging, high fiving and furiously waving their white towels.

The Red Wings had come all the way back to complete the rally. Undoubtedly, they would finish off the demoralized Bolts in Game 4 and head back to Tampa with the series tied and all the momentum from having won two straight.

Except the puck never crossed the goal line

It hit the post, ricocheted through the crease behind Bishop and away from the goal.

Larkin knew it as he continued to follow the puck behind the net. The official standing on the goal line also knew it as he immediately signaled no goal.

The only people who didn’t know, it seemed, were the fans in the stands, who continued cheering for a good 10 seconds while play on the ice never stopped.

The Lightning had dodged a bullet on Larkin’s near-goal.

They would fire the fatal shot about four minutes later.

“I saw it right away that it didn’t go in, but they had a big kill to kill off and special teams came up big there in the third,” Victor Hedman said. “…To see that one go off the post, obviously it got the heart rate up a little bit, but then to get that power-play goal was huge. We found ways to win tonight, and that’s what you have to do in the playoffs.”

A missed opportunity for Detroit provided the boost the Lightning needed to prevail in Game 4.

3. REDEMPTION FOR JONATHAN DROUIN

Two months ago, Jonathan Drouin was a forgotten man in Tampa, the talented second-year forward somewhere in Montreal working on his game, a player without a team after refusing to show up for a game with AHL Syracuse a couple weeks after being reassigned to the Crunch from the Lightning and ultimately suspended by Tampa Bay on Jan. 20 for abandoning the Crunch.

Today, Drouin might be the most popular man in the Bay Area.

He helped set up all three power-play goals in the Lightning’s 3-2 victory in Game 4 and added a dynamic element to a Bolts’ power play that languished all season.

He was given a substantial role on the Lightning power play ahead of Game 4, and he showed the rest of the hockey world the Lightning were correct in not abandoning their prized possession, instead letting him work to re-earn the trust of the organization and, most importantly, his teammates.

“The one thing I think that gets missed in all of this is we never, ever gave up on Jonathan,” Cooper said. “He’s a young kid and he’s finding his way in pro hockey. I’ve said this numerous times, he had a feeling, whatever it was, he made some decisions and he stuck to it. You’ve got to give the kid credit. He took a stand and made his decision. We can debate whether or not it was right or wrong, the way it’s turned out is he came back and made a choice to succeed and to battle through. And he went down to the minors and he played and there was no gratuitous call up.

“He earned his way back. And now he’s earning his ice time. And now he’s helping us win hockey games, which we knew all along he could.”

With Steven Stamkos out for a substantial portion of the playoffs and maybe the entire playoffs due to a vascular condition, the Lightning needed someone to step in and try to replace the lost production in the captain’s absence.

Jonathan Drouin, it appears, can be that guy.

“I’m just unbelievably proud of the way he’s handled himself with our team, with the staff, and he deserves this,” Cooper said. “The way he’s come back and paid his dues, good for him.

“I’m really happy for him.”

So too is the rest of the Bay Area.

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