NEW YORK -- The Tampa Bay Lightning took a page out of the New York Rangers' playbook Sunday night and beat them at their own game, looking every bit as comfortable and confident as they are when they wind up their speed and skill to turn a game into a track meet.
This was yet another sign of growth in the Lightning, a team that started the Stanley Cup Playoffs green but is now looking like a grizzled, seasoned group that's ready to win in any way against any team on the biggest stage in hockey.
They're one win away from getting there.
Tampa Bay won 2-0 in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final at Madison Square Garden with great patience, momentum-swinging penalty-killing, a goal off of a quick transition, a tic-tac-toe goal on the power play, and a suffocating performance in the third period.
"If we're going to have any chance of winning, that's how we have to do it," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after Tampa Bay took a 3-2 lead in the best-of-7 series.
Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos said after Game 1 in this series that the Lightning needed to play more like the Rangers to reach the Stanley Cup Final.
His words fell on deaf ears, at least initially. The series turned bonkers with 25 goals scored between the teams in Games 2-4.
Cooper said the Lightning realized at the end of a 5-1 loss in Game 4 that they were too caught up in how many scoring chances they were getting when they needed to focus on how many they were giving up.
"You have to pull the reins back and talk about what we've talked about from the first day of training camp," Cooper said. "It's not how many you score; it's how many you keep out of the net. The boys committed to defense tonight. It was a heck of an effort."
That the Lightning were able to win this way, backed by a blue-collar, 26-save shutout from maligned goalie Ben Bishop, is not a first for them in this postseason. Tampa Bay won Game 6 against the Montreal Canadiens in the second round with a similar defense-first mentality.
Coming off back-to-back losses against Montreal and facing the prospect of returning to Bell Centre for a Game 7 after taking a 3-0 series lead, the Lightning killed two penalties, limited the Canadiens to 19 shots on goal, scored on the power play, capitalized on three even-strength chances, and locked it down in the third period for a 4-1 win.
That was the night the Lightning realized they can win, and dominate in doing so, when the games require them to play a style that is, for all intents and purposes, the opposite of what is expected from them.
"That was referenced in the [first] intermission once: Let's give an effort like we did in Game 6 against Montreal. And we did," Stamkos said. "I thought we clogged up the neutral zone, which was great. I thought we didn't panic with the puck. We talked about not being afraid to lose. We still made some plays in the middle of the ice in the D zone to get away from pressure. When there wasn't a play, it was a simple play off the glass. We did have a couple shifts where we kept it in their end for a while.
"This group is getting more and more confident, and we have the leadership core and the guys that are comfortable in these situations, and it showed tonight."
Make no mistake, the Lightning didn't make it easy on themselves by giving the Rangers four power plays in the first 30 minutes of Game 5. It could have blown up in their faces.
The Rangers scored six times on 13 power plays in the previous three games. They were shooting the lights out too, with four goals on five shots over eight power plays in Games 3 and 4.
"One of the big things that we challenged the guys with was special teams," Cooper said. "I mean, we have to step up here, boys. To give up two power-play goals in three consecutive games, that's not going to win you anything."
The Lightning killed off every penalty, allowing the Rangers four shots on goal and eight total shot attempts. They outshot the Rangers 2-1 when Jason Garrison was in the box after he was called for high sticking on Rick Nash at 7:19 of the second period.
Goalie - TBL
GAA: 2.08 | SVP: .922
Valtteri Filppula scored less than two minutes after the Lightning finished killing Andrej Sustr's penalty for tripping Carl Hagelin at 9:51 of the second. Stamkos scored his seventh goal in the past 10 games less than five minutes later, with Rangers defenseman Marc Staal in the box.
"It was almost like we may have popped the bubble a little bit," Cooper said of the penalty kills. "I thought we got stronger after that."
There is no doubt. They also grew taller, the way they did in Game 6 against the Canadiens.
Bishop, who was on the hot seat after giving up five goals in each of the past two games, did what he had to do, and his teammates played big for the cause too. The Rangers couldn't get inside, couldn't get near the net after giving up the two goals. Tampa Bay blocked 10 of New York's 22 shot attempts in the third period, and Bishop's rebound control was impeccable.
The Rangers didn't have many great first chances and hardly any second chances.
Bishop improved to 6-1 with a 1.42 goals-against average and .945 save percentage in games after a loss in the playoffs.
"He looked really confident in the net," Cooper said. "We've watched this in two previous series. As the series have gone on and the longer they've gone on, he's elevated his game. He's playing with that confidence. He's playing the puck. He's making that first save. He's not giving up rebounds. He's just commanding the net. We feed off that."
Cooper was describing Bishop, not Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. It was hard to tell the difference, just like it was hard to tell the difference between New York and Tampa Bay in Game 5.
"Our game is defense first," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. "I know [the media hasn't] seen a lot of it, but we definitely stepped our game up. We took care of our end before going on the offense. That's when we play our best."