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Boyle is X-factor for Lightning against Penguins

Tampa Bay forward has advanced to conference final in each of past three seasons

by Corey Long / Correspondent

TAMPA -- When the Tampa Bay Lightning signed center Brian Boyle to a three-year contract before last season, it was to help them get to and succeed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Boyle has provided leadership, physical play, versatility and the occasional clutch goal, and will play in the Eastern Conference Final for a third straight season.

Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins is at Consol Energy Center on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

Boyle has been hard to miss in these playoffs. Whether he was challenging Detroit Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader in response to Abdelkader taking liberties with Lightning forward Mike Blunden during a scrum, or scoring a game-winning goal against the New York Islanders in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Second Round, his 6-foot-6 frame is always around.

Video: NYI@TBL, Gm5: Boyle beats Greiss with a quick shot

"You picture a guy that's going to help you get to the conference final and the Stanley Cup [Final] and eventually win a Stanley Cup," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "It's going to be Brian Boyle's third conference final in a row. We had a young group of guys, a lot of them had won in the minors and have some resumes of winning but not at this level. And when you bring in the [Anton] Stralmans, the [Ryan] Callahans, the Boyles, Brenden Morrows … the guys that have been to the dance before, I think you can't say enough of what they've done and how they've helped us get to where we are."

The Lightning defeated the New York Rangers in seven games in the conference final last season before losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games in the Stanley Cup Final. In 2013-14, Boyle was with the Rangers, who defeated the Montreal Canadiens in six games before losing in five to the Los Angeles Kings in the Final.

The sequence that led to Boyle's game-winning goal against the Islanders demonstrates his ability to be a two-way player. The play began with him delivering a hard hit to Islanders defenseman Thomas Hickey, who stayed down on the ice. Boyle continued to charge toward the net and was in the right place to control a wide shot from defenseman Victor Hedman and scored on the rebound to give the Lightning a 5-4 win and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series they would win in five games.

The Islanders disputed the hit and said Boyle should have been suspended, but the NHL reviewed the play and no discipline was handed out. Cooper opined it was two guys "trying to make a hockey play."

Video: TBL@NYI, Gm3: Boyle beats Greiss to win it in OT

"He's a tough player that leads by example," Callahan said of Boyle. "He's going to be tough on the forecheck, and when he has an opportunity to contribute on offense he can do it."

Boyle has a lot of experience against the Penguins from his days with the Rangers but said things are different during the playoffs, especially when the teams are one step away from the Stanley Cup Final.

"You're usually the only game on, so there's a lot more people watching," Boyle said. "The game is still win or go home, so the same amount is at risk. The stakes are raised because you're that much closer. But you win or you're done playing for the summertime."

Boyle, who has lost the Stanley Cup Final two years in a row, knows this is a time when goals are harder to come by and defense can control a series. He's going to be asked to continue to set the tone physically and help slow down a Pittsburgh power play that has continued to get better.

"We've learned a lot of lessons last year, and I think it's important that we've applied those this year," Boyle said. "But we understand that we're halfway through the playoffs in terms of what the goal is. There's a lot going on, and there's only four teams left, but it gets harder and harder."

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