TAMPA - Prior to taking the ice for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final on May 13, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper addressed his players about the opportunity in front of them in the series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"It's conference finals," Cooper told the Lightning in a speech captured by Showtime's cameras for the debut episode of its "ALL ACCESS: Quest for the Stanley Cup" series. "Teams don't get here by fluke. You didn't fluke your way here, fellas. You earned your way here. Treat it like that."
The message about the Lightning not getting this far "by fluke" is one that Cooper has repeated to the media multiple times. But after being dominated in losing Games 2 and 3, it was beginning to look like the suggestions that Tampa Bay had benefitted from having an easier path against the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders in the first two rounds might have been accurate and that the Lightning might be in over their heads against the powerful Penguins.
The Lightning responded in Game 4 on Friday with their best performance of the series, jumping out to a four-goal lead before holding on for a 4-3 victory at Amalie Arena.
Although there were some nervous moments in the final minutes after the Penguins scored three times in the third period to make it a one-goal game, the Lightning held on to even the best-of-7 series at two wins apiece as they head back to Consol Energy Center for Game 5 on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).
Video: PIT@TBL, Gm4: Sustr scores off Kucherov's nice dish
"We're a good character team," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "We know our weaknesses, and we know how to change from game to game if something is bad and we certainly did [Friday]. I thought we upped our game all over the ice, in all three zones, our battle levels, everything really. That's the kind of response we wanted."
After giving up a team playoff-record 48 shots in a 4-2 loss in Game 3 on Wednesday, there was disappointment in the Lightning locker room; but there was also a professed belief that they would bounce back.
The Lightning have been through a lot in the playoffs; they've had to play without captain Steven Stamkos because of a blood clot and were without Stralman through the first two rounds and Game 1 against the Penguins because of a fractured left fibula. They also lost No. 1 goaltender Ben Bishop to a left leg injury in the first period of Game 1 in this series.
However, they haven't let any of those problems deter them, so losing two games in a row with the Penguins wasn't going to discourage them either. Even without Stamkos and Bishop, they have a core of players that went through similar trials and tribulations on their run to the Stanley Cup Final last season.
"The experience going through it last year I think helped us a lot going into this year, all the ups and downs in the playoff run," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "We're confident in ourselves. We're confident in the way we play. It was a tough few games for us, but we believe in this group, and it doesn't matter who's going to be out on the ice, we know they're going to get the job done."
Cooper's statement that, "Teams don't get here by fluke," seemed to be directed at his players as much as those who have doubted the Lightning. He wanted them not to be satisfied with just getting this far.
If anyone believes they don't belong in the final four, that's their problem.
"I don't think anyone in this room [cares] about how other people think we got here," center Brian Boyle said. "We know who we are as a team. We have confidence in ourselves as a team. We've gone pretty far two years running now. If you want to call it whatever you call it, it doesn't matter to us. We don't care."
The Lightning showed Friday that the Penguins aren't the only team in this series with speed, skill and depth. Their four goals came from four different players: forwards who played on three different lines -- Ryan Callahan, Jonathan Drouin and Tyler Johnson - and defenseman Andrej Sustr.
They cleaned up some of the sloppiness coming out of their end with the puck, which led to more speed and control through the neutral zone and a series-best 37 shots on goal. But that's not all that got them back on the winning track.
"We did some things different [Friday] that I thought we were successful with, but more than just your tactics or your systems, I thought it was our energy, our compete [level]," Callahan said. "The way we executed was a lot better than it was in the previous game, and I think that was the biggest adjustment rather than the X's and O's."
Video: PIT@TBL, Gm4: Callahan tallies in the first minute
Now it's down to winning two of three games for a trip to the Final. As Cooper said, the Lightning have gotten this far by earning it.
If they can get two more wins, it's doubtful anyone will call that "a fluke."
"It's a 30-team league, and 16 make the playoffs, and the margin of error between winning and losing is so close," Cooper said. "And then you get down to eight, and now you have to grind through that, and now you're down to four. I truly believe those teams have earned their way, and I think everybody's earned their way in that regard. So, when you get to this point, now it's just elite teams and there's other elite teams that aren't playing right now.
"That's why you just feel extremely fortunate to be in the situation we're in and to be here two years in a row."