PITTSBURGH -- The Tampa Bay Lightning could have come up with a lengthy list of reasons to become discouraged in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday.
First was the goal they gave up to Brian Dumoulin with less than a second remaining in the first period. Then came another goal they allowed to Chris Kunitz with 49.6 seconds remaining in the second.
Throw in the Ryan Callahan shot that somehow stayed out instead of tying the game with 3:52 remaining in regulation, and the Lightning easily could have thought that it wasn't their night.
But if they were the kind to give up easily, they never would have gotten this far. So they kept plugging away and eventually were rewarded in a 4-3 overtime victory at Consol Energy Center that moved them within one win of returning to the Stanley Cup Final.
"I'm not surprised," Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman said after Tyler Johnson's goal 53 seconds into sudden death gave the Lightning a 3-2 lead in the best-of-7 series. "I know what kind of team we have in here, the kind of resiliency we have. We showed it again [Sunday], being down two goals against a great team. We never gave up. We gave up two goals late in periods and we still found a way to battle back."
Video: Cooper on team's confidence, rally in Game 5 OT win
Nikita Kucherov, who leads the NHL with 11 goals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs but hadn't scored in the first four games of the series, came through when the Lightning needed him Sunday, twice tying the game. After falling behind 2-0, the Lightning answered with goals 1:10 apart from Alex Killorn and Kucherov in the second period to tie it.
Although Kunitz scored to put the Penguins back ahead, the Lightning kept pushing in the third. They thought Callahan's shot from the left circle went in, but when video replay confirmed the puck went off goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and the far post and never crossed the goal line, they were undeterred.
Their persistence paid off when Kucherov tied it with 3:16 left in regulation by scoring on a wraparound at the right post.
"Whatever happens, we keep pushing and doing the same type of things that we'd been doing all night," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. "A goal here or there, or a post, doesn't really change anything. We just keep moving on and playing smart hockey."
This a group that didn't give up when Stralman went down late in the regular season with a fractured left fibula and continues to win with captain Steven Stamkos out while recovering from surgery to remove a blood clot near his right collarbone. Losing No. 1 goaltender Ben Bishop to a left-leg injury in the first period of Game 1 of this series was another blow, but with 21-year-old backup Andrei Vasilevskiy filling in, the Lightning are defying the odds again against the highly talented Penguins.
"I think 'character' is a good word to describe this group," Stralman said. "Also, 'experience.' We learned a lot from last year, and I don't think we get here if we panic or anything like that. We just keep going on and turn the page."
It seemed fitting that Johnson scored the winning goal. He was struck in the mouth with a puck in warmups before Game 4 on Friday and came back to play and score the winning goal in a 4-3 victory.
On Sunday, a Jason Garrison shot from the left circle went off Johnson's backside in front and floated into the net for the overtime winner.
"Perfect" is how Hedman described the puck deflecting in off Johnson's rump.
Video: TBL@PIT, Gm5: Johnson gives Lightning the series lead
"That's playoff hockey right there," Hedman said. "A lot of things that we went through last year in the playoffs help us this year. It's going to be a lot of up and downs. Sometimes, if you're not playing your best, you're playing against great teams, you need to find a way to refocus and not look back. We start fresh every game. That's the biggest mindset and the biggest lesson we get from last year. It's always going to be a roller-coaster ride. It's not going to be easy. It's going to be very, very tough. It's the toughest league and the toughest trophy to play for.
"There's a lot of great teams going at it, and you just need to focus and give it your best."
The Lightning appeared to lose focus in the final minute of the first period and again in the final minute of the second. Hedman was burned by Bryan Rust, who muscled past him to get off the initial shot on Dumoulin's rebound goal that gave Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead with 0.7 seconds left in the first.
The entire Lightning team appeared to let up before Kunitz's rebound goal put the Penguins back up 3-2. Tampa Bay simply regrouped during the intermission and went back out in the third a found a way to tie it again.
"I'm not saying they don't give you ulcers, but there's a quiet calm about that group," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of his team. "Even when we're sitting there, we're down 2-0 midway through the game, there wasn't panic. There wasn't anything [being said] on the bench other than, 'Let's just get the next one. Let's just get the next one.' When we came back to tie it, even though they scored late [in the second] to go into the lead, we've just been in this situation too many times. … There's just a lot of confidence in that group, and they knew what they were doing."