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Five reasons Lightning advanced to Eastern final

by Staff Writer / Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning jumped out to a 3-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Montreal Canadiens and had to survive a scare.

Montreal battled back in the best-of-7 series by winning Games 4 and 5, but the Lightning had not lost three consecutive all season and showed their mettle with a 4-1 win in Game 6 on Tuesday to advance to the Eastern Conference Final.

The Lightning won nine of 11 games against the Canadiens this season and got a measure of revenge against the team that swept them in the first round a year ago.

Here are five reasons the Lightning advanced:

1. Bishop comes up big

With hindsight being 20/20 it's hard to believe goalie Ben Bishop was such a question mark coming into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even though Bishop had very little postseason experience at any level of hockey, he won 77 regular-season games over the past two seasons.

Bishop no longer lacks experience and he's saved his best hockey for the biggest moments. His 31-save shutout in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Detroit Red Wings set the table for what he would do against the Canadiens.

Bishop had 43 saves in Game 1 at the Bell Centre to help the Lightning steal the early series advantage and had 30 saves in Game 3 when the Lightning scored the game-winning goal with 1.1 seconds remaining in the third period.

However, Bishop saved some of his best work for Game 6 when the Canadiens put together some of their best scoring chances in the series. He robbed Tomas Plekanec on a chance in front of the net during the first period and his glove save against Dale Weise on a breakaway in the third period effectively clinched the series.

After Game 4 Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban suggested Bishop "was sitting on a horseshoe for a little bit there," attributing the goalie's success in the previous three games to luck over talent.

Bishop responded to the jab by printing a picture of a horseshoe and taped it to his seat in the locker room before Game 6. Maybe it's better to be lucky than good, but his numbers in the playoffs (1.81 goals-against average and .931 save percentage) suggest he's been the real deal.

2. 'The Triplets'

After a six-goal outburst in the Eastern Conference First Round, Tyler Johnson had two goals and three assists in the six games against Montreal, but Nikita Kucherov took over the scoring duties with six goals and one assist.

In Game 6 it was Ondrej Palat that made the difference. He had the first assist on Kucherov's goal in the first period that gave the Lightning a 1-0 lead. But his power-play goal at 18:56 of the second period gave the Lightning a commanding 3-0 lead and took a lot of steam out any potential Canadiens comeback.

In the six games of the series "The Triplets" had 10 goals and seven assists.

"I've never seen a line with that much chemistry," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "They just know where each other is, they don't have to look sometimes. They pick lines apart, they pick defenses apart and they make it look so smooth and easy. It's fun to be a part of and sometimes you just sit on the bench, watch them and smile."

3. 'Stammertime' returns

The reports of Steven Stamkos' demise have been greatly exaggerated. The Lightning captain took a lot of scrutiny for his struggles in the first round against Detroit, but Stamkos responded with a strong series against Montreal and scored seven points (three goals, four assists) over the final five games.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper decided to move Stamkos to the wing with Valtteri Filppula at center during Game 5 and stuck with that pairing in Game 6 after Ryan Callahan was ruled out with an emergency appendectomy. The move seemed to give Stamkos room to skate and apply pressure to the Canadiens defense with his speed.

In Game 6, Stamkos looked like the guy that scored 43 goals in the regular season. He was relentless and aggressive on every shift. He was rewarded for his effort with a goal in the second period when he snapped a wrist shot past Price. It looked like he was releasing a month's worth of frustration on one shot.

"We were talking about this game like it was Game 7," Stamkos said. "We wanted to show we were a different team and I thought everyone had a great game. It was probably our most complete game so far in the playoffs."

4. Timely power-play production

The Lightning were 7-for-20 on their power play in the second round. In Game 2 they scored four power-play goals to roll to a 6-2 win and take a 2-0 series lead. In Game 6 they were 1-of-2 with Palat's power-play goal proving to be a dagger.

In the first five games of the series the Canadiens had more shots and more scoring chances thanks in part to their superior play when the teams were at even strength. Tampa Bay needed to take advantage of the times the Canadiens did not play with discipline, and they did.

"Palat's power-play goal at the end of the second period was really one of the biggest plays of the game," Stamkos said. "He scores there and we took a 3-0 lead. That gave us even more energy coming in the locker room and we clogged them up defensively in the third period."

5. Revenge

Cooper wouldn't admit it and neither did Stamkos, but the loss to Montreal in the first round last season has been a motivating factor ever since. The Lightning are much different than they were last season, but a lot of their players had to live down that sweep for a year.

With a healthy Bishop in goal and another year of experience for the young stars like Johnson, Kucherov and Palat, the Lightning had something to prove to the Canadiens in the playoffs and they wanted to send them home.

"We've gone through a lot of ups and downs so far," Stamkos said. "Some difficult situations where maybe you tuck your tail in and hide. But we've risen to the occasion. This is a different team. A lot of people want to make this about last year, and it's good for the media, but we just wanted to focus on this season."

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