Monday, September 25

On your mark, get set, PANIC! Yep, the Lightning are on again.

NEW YORK—Palms were sweating. Heart rates were elevated. Quick prayers were being whispered.

Yeah, it was another tough night of playoff hockey for Lightning fans.

For the players? Pffft, this stuff is a blast.

Once again, the sporting world tuned in to the antics of Team Heart Attack on Thursday. And once again, the Lightning came through with a winner in the final minutes. This time it was an Ondrej Palat deflection of a Mikhail Sergachev shot that broke a tie with 1:50 remaining in a 3-1 win against the Rangers.

If you’re counting, that makes four times in the last 11 games that Tampa Bay has won in overtime or in the final two minutes of regulation. The Lightning did it to Toronto in Game 6. To Florida in Game 2. To New York in Game 3 and now a repeat performance in Game 5.

It’s like every game is another episode of “MacGyver.” You’re looking at the clock, wondering how it’s going to end, then the Lightning pull out some ridiculously implausible shot to win the game.

“I can’t sit here and say we have a magic potion for that,” coach Jon Cooper said. “We’re just trying to play to the end.”

And now, with a 3-2 series lead against New York, the Lightning are one victory from reaching the Stanley Cup final for the third year in a row, something no NHL team has done in 40 years.

Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat (18), left, beats Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (31) on a redirection from a shot by defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (not pictured)).
Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat (18), left, beats Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (31) on a redirection from a shot by defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (not pictured)). [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

But don’t even for a minute think this stuff is preordained. Just because the Lightning have been the NHL’s best in the postseason for two-plus seasons, it doesn’t mean they’re cleaning everybody’s plates.

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Beating New York in Madison Square Garden is no easy feat, and it took the Lightning nearly every second of the game’s 60 minutes to pull off this comeback. The Rangers had won eight consecutive home games before Thursday night and were 20-2 at home in the regular season when scoring the game’s first goal, as they did in this one.

So how do the Lightning do it?

It’s talent, of course. And familiarity helps. But it’s a mindset, too. A sense that they’re supposed to win these games if they just stay patient and in control.

“You go into those situations and everyone talks about, ‘OK, you’re up to a goal or you’re tied going into the third, how are you going to execute?’ We’ve learned over the years how to do that,” said Captain Steven Stamkos. “Being comfortable is probably not the right word. Because it’s so intense that you’re not comfortable. You’re just confident. And you understand what goes on. And our group understands.

“It might not be your next shift, but it might be three shifts from now that something happens. So just stick with it.”

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Stamkos is right about that. This is nothing new for this group. Remember the 2020 Stanley Cup run? Six of the Lightning’s 16 postseason victories were in overtime, including the classic five-OT opener against Columbus.

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If there is something impressive about this latest run, it’s that Brayden Point has not been on the ice for the last three winners. Point scored in overtime against Toronto but has been sidelined since Game 7 of that series. And that has led to players such as Ross Colton, Palat and Sergachev stepping up.

Lightning players celebrate their 3-1 win over the New York Rangers, which gives them their first series lead.
Lightning players celebrate their 3-1 win over the New York Rangers, which gives them their first series lead. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“When the game is run by a clock, there is a finishing time. And you’ve got to play within that,” Cooper said. “The game-winning goal could have come in the first minute or the last minute. It doesn’t really matter when it comes. You’ve just got to get it. And I think that’s been a big trademark of the guys, not chasing things regardless of what the score is, regardless if you’re behind in the game, like we were (Thursday), regardless if the game is tied. You play to the end, and the guys have done that.”

That’s also a pretty good description of the Eastern Conference final. The Lightning got off to a horrid start in Game 1, began to rediscover themselves despite losing Game 2 and have dominated New York in 5-on-5 situations since. Don’t panic. not chasing. Do not alter their recipe. There are plenty of ways to measure how Tampa Bay has played the past three games.

You could look at how the Lightning have limited penalties and turnovers. You could look at even-handed scoring. You could look at how Andrei Vasilevskiy has grown larger in the net.

Or you could just measure the team’s pulse.

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It seems steady as ever.

John Romano can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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