That statement might have seemed beyond the realm of possibility halfway through Game 5 as the Lightning trailed 2-0 and struggled to get shots on Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury during his playoff debut, but seasoned Bolts fans have learned to never count this squad out from any situation.
Tampa Bay scored twice in a 1:10 span in the second period to even the score. The Penguins pushed back in front with a late goal in the period – the second time in Game 5 they scored in the final minute of a period – but Nikita Kucherov answered with his second goal of the game with 3:16 left in regulation to send Game 5 to overtime.
Less than a minute into the extra session, Jason Garrison received the puck in the left circle and shot. In front of the net, Tyler Johnson turned his back toward Garrison as the defenseman shot, and the puck deflected off his body and into the net to cap the Bolts’ comeback.
“I saw Gary start to shoot it, and I thought it was going for my head again,” Johnson would tell reporters after the game. “So I turned around, and I got lucky. It just nicked me.”
The defending East champs can wrap up a second-consecutive Eastern Conference title with a win at Amalie Arena on Tuesday in Game 6.
So how were the Lightning able to rally yet again from trying circumstances? And should we be surprised anymore at what this team is able to accomplish?
We’ll take a closer look at Sunday’s dramatic Game 5 victory in today’s 3 Things.
1. NO PANIC
Sluggish starts have not been an issue for Tampa Bay for the majority of the ECF, and Game 5 was no exception. The Lightning played their game over the first 20 minutes and, despite only registering four shots on goal, felt they controlled play in the first period.
They had nothing to show for it, however. When the Bolts entered their locker room for the first intermission, they trailed 1-0 courtesy of a rebound goal by the Penguins’ Brian Dumoulin with 0.7 seconds remaining in the period.
The deficit doubled almost immediately coming out of the break, Patric Hornqvist finding the back of the net 1:30 into the second period for a 2-0 Pens advantage.
“I thought we played a pretty good first period,” Lightning right wing Ryan Callahan said. “Maybe our shots total didn’t show that, but I think we had 20 or 21 shots attempted in that first period. They blocked quite a handful of them. I thought we had a really good start, and then you give one up with 0.7 left and then you give one up in the first minute-and-a-half of the second, it’s tough but we find a way. We keep working, keep playing. We liked our game in the first period, so we just continued with that and ended up finding a way to win this game.”
Lesser teams might have folded at that point.
But the Lightning aren’t a lesser team.
They realized there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the way they were playing, they were just the recipients of a couple moments of misfortune. If their level of play continued throughout the game, things would even themselves out.
I get to watch them 100-plus times a year,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “So, it’s a lot of fun to be their coach. I’m not saying they don’t give you ulcers, but they just, there’s a quiet calm about that group, and even when we’re sitting there, we’re down 2-0 midway through the game, there was just, there wasn’t any panic. There wasn’t anything going on on the bench other than, ‘Let’s just get the next one. Let’s just get the next one.’”
The Lightning got the next two to tie the game.
But they would fall behind again with 50 seconds to go in the second period when Chris Kunitz pushed a shot past Andrei Vasilevskiy on a scramble in front of goal.
Again, even as time was ticking toward zero in the third and they continued to trail, the Lightning knew that tying goal would come at some point.
“There’s just a lot of confidence in that group, and they knew what they were doing,” Cooper said.
Kucherov’s wraparound goal with 3:16 to play hushed the Consol Energy Center crowd.
Garrison, aided by the back of Johnson, sent them scurrying for the exits in overtime.
“There’s no quit in here,” Garrison said. “We came back twice in this game and showed that resilience.”
2. THE NON-GOAL PLAY OF THE GAME
Nikita Kucherov’s game-tying goal with 3:16 left in regulation sent Bolts nation into a frenzy.
But without Andrei Vasilevskiy’s critical stop on Chris Kunitz a couple minutes earlier, Kucherov’s tally would have been little more than a footnote to a Penguins victory.
With Pittsburgh holding a 3-2 lead and searching for one more goal to put the Lightning away, Kunitz received the puck on the edge of the crease with no one around. The Penguins forward, who had scored his fourth goal of the playoffs earlier in the game to give the Pens their one-goal lead, had time to collect the puck, gather himself and get off a balanced shot before anybody from the Lightning could move over to disrupt him.
Kunitz had the puck and the game on his backhand. He tried to scoop a shot into the net at the near post.
But like he’s done all series since being called upon to fill in for the injured Ben Bishop, Vasilevskiy made a big-time stop in a big-time spot. He kept the Lightning’s comeback hopes alive and set up Kucherov’s heroics.
“It was obviously a big save for us,” Garrison said. “I think (Kunitz) was left alone for a good amount of time there. Vasy has made a lot of big saves for us in this series. We’re not surprised by it, but it’s something that we can learn from, leaving guys in front of the net like that.”
Before the 2016 playoffs, Vasilevskiy had only started back-to-back games once in his career, that coming in his first week in the NHL in mid-December during the 2014-15 campaign.
Now, with Bishop out, Vasilevskiy has started four games in a row for the Bolts, and he seems to get better and better with each confidence-building outing.
Vasilevskiy won his second-straight game as a starter in Game 5 after making 31 saves on 34 shots.
“He’s made a lot of critical saves for us,” Cooper said. “The one thing about your goaltender, and we talk about with our guys, is you don’t necessarily have to win every game but just give your team a chance to win the game. And Vasy has given us a chance to win every single game, and if we lost the game, it wasn’t on him. It was on us in front of him. When your goaltender is kicking them out and when you do make a mistake or they make a heck of a play because they’re a really good team, when your guy’s kicking them out, you just kind of grow a little bit taller on the bench.
“That’s what (Vasy’s) done for us.”
Vasilevskiy has been kicking pucks out regularly for the Lightning during the Eastern Conference Final.
His last kick in Game 5 on Kunitz might have saved the game and the series for the Lightning.
Nikita Kucherov had yet to get on the scoreboard during the Eastern Conference Final going into Game 5, and the four-game goal drought had to be especially frustrating for the 22-year-old Russian.
Before the ECF, Kucherov had scored in seven of the Bolts’ 10 playoff games. He hadn’t gone more than a game without scoring.
Kucherov didn’t record a point over the first two games in the ECF. He started to make more of an impact in Games 3 and 4, registering two assists in each.
But he still hadn’t scored.
The dam finally broke in Game 5.
With the Lightning trailing 2-1, Kucherov leveled the score at 14:25 of the second period after skating free into the left circle, receiving a pass from Vladislav Namestnikov and burying his one-timer past Marc-Andre Fleury to end his goal slump.
Late in the third, the Lightning a little more than three minutes away from dropping Game 5, Kucherov came to the rescue again. Tyler Johnson shot a puck on net from the left circle. Kucherov was skating behind the net, picked up the rebound and wrapped around to net to deposit the puck into the goal.
In overtime, Kucherov provided an assist on the game-winning goal, dishing the puck into the left circle for an open Garrison.
The normally stone-faced Kucherov was all smiles in the locker room following the win.
“It’s one of those games where you have a chance to score,” he said. “It’s huge for us. It doesn’t matter who scores goals, just try to play our best and do what we can do.”
Kucherov recorded his third three-point night of these playoffs in Game 5. He has seven points over the last three games.
And he retook the NHL playoff goal lead from San Jose’s Joe Pavelski after netting his 10th and 11th goals of the postseason in the Game 5 victory.
“When you’re a rising star in this league, as he is -- and he’s one of those guys for our team, every team’s got one of those guys at some point -- it just seems the bigger the moment, the bigger they rise to the occasion,” Cooper said. “He is proving that last year wasn’t a fluke, and he’s just a gifted, skilled, determined player. He’s really a pleasure to coach. The one thing, we talk about all his goals and everything about that, but I think he’s plus-17 in the playoffs. That’s you’re not just being responsible and scoring on one end, that means you’re being responsible on the other end too. I don’t think guys like him get enough credit for how they play the whole ice, and he’s a big-time player for us.”