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Conference Final

Callahan puts Lightning one win from Stanley Cup Final with inspired play

'Character guy' can help Tampa Bay close out Capitals in Game 6

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

TAMPA -- Ryan Callahan went to the net knowing he'd end up getting crunched. As if that was going to stop the Tampa Bay Lightning right wing.

Callahan did get crunched, hard and legally by Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin. He still scored, the puck going off his right hand and into the net 33 seconds into the second period Saturday. He celebrated from his knees, in the right corner. He slid that far.

"He's that character guy that really is willing to sacrifice anything for the betterment of the team," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said of Callahan. "You can't have enough of those guys."

 

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The Lightning have several them, with the list including Callahan's fourth-line linemates Cedric Paquette and Chris Kunitz, but arguably nobody wears the heart and soul badge of the team more prominently than Callahan.

He made his impact on the scoresheet in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final at Amalie Arena with a goal and an assist on Paquette's goal in the Lightning's 3-2 win, which put them on the verge of reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in four seasons (2015).

The Lightning lead the best-of-7 series 3-2. Game 6 is at Capital One Arena on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN1, TVAS).

Callahan's impact has also been felt off the scoresheet.

He's Tampa Bay's leader in hits in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 53, putting him seventh in the NHL and fourth among forwards entering play Sunday. He has 11 blocked shots, tied for second among Tampa Bay's forwards.

Callahan is one of the Lightning's leading penalty killers, averaging 1:24 of shorthanded ice time per game. If they have to kill a 5-on-3, he's out there. If they're protecting a lead in the final 90 seconds of a game, as they were Saturday, he's out there.

Against Washington, his line has been playing against Ovechkin at 5-on-5. Callahan, Paquette and Kunitz have not been on the ice for a 5-on-5 goal against in three straight games. It's no coincidence the Lightning won all three.

"He plays the game as honest as you're going to find," Stamkos said. "He plays it clean. He plays it hard. He's not one of those guys who's going to go out there and chirp your ear off. He'll do it by constantly finishing his checks, by constantly being on the right side, by constantly being in the shooting lane and blocking your shot. He's an unbelievable professional and he can change the momentum of a game, which can change a series."

Video: WSH@TBL, Gm5: Callahan scores 33 seconds into 2nd

Callahan does it with a reckless abandonment that Lightning coach Jon Cooper calls "inspiring." He uses that word to describe Kunitz and Paquette too.

"When you get to this time of year, oftentimes it's not the big goal, it's the big block or the big hit or the big penalty kill that gets you over the top," Cooper said. "Those guys have been worth their weight in gold."

Callahan plays his style despite injuries, most notably a labral tear in his right hip, that have plagued him for the past three seasons.

He had his first hip surgery June 21, 2016. The Lightning announced he had another Feb. 22, 2017. He played 18 games last season. This season, he missed 15 games and two more in the first round against the New Jersey Devils because of upper body injuries.

"No question, the last three years have been tough for me," Callahan said. "Starting with the hip and getting hurt earlier this year and missing some time. It hasn't been smooth. I think for me, I appreciate this even more. Especially being in the League for 12 years now too, you realize you don't get this chance and this opportunity very often. I appreciate it."

Video: WSH@TBL, Gm5: Paquette gives Lightning early lead

Regardless if it means throwing his body in front of Ovechkin's one-timer, as he did with 8:35 remaining in the first period of Game 4, when the Lightning were killing a penalty and needed a big play that wouldn't end up on the scoresheet.

Or when he knew he was going to take a hit from someone, and that someone happened to be Ovechkin, to make a play that would end up on the scoresheet in Game 5. His goal gave the Lightning a 3-0 lead. It turned into the game-winning goal.

"It's not hard," Callahan said. "Twenty-three other guys in that room would do the same thing. Obviously throughout the playoffs there's bumps, there's bruises, but this is the time of year that you play for. You hear all the stories when playoffs are done what guys play through. It's what it is. It's what it's about."

It'll be interesting to hear what Callahan is playing through after this run is finished. There must be bruises all over his body, aches that don't go away in the morning, pains that linger during games.

"I love [Callahan]," Lightning forward Tyler Johnson said. "He's a guy that you definitely need on your team. He literally does everything.

***

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