Lightning back in East final for third time in 4 years

TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning know the grind.

Back in the Eastern Conference final for the third time in four years, the Atlantic Division winners led the NHL in scoring this season but have been even more impressive defensively through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

“I think if people looked at our team in the regular season … we had the most goals scored in the league or close to it. So, we’re kind of looked at as that team, the high-flying Bolts that can score and defence isn’t really important to them,” coach Jon Cooper said.

“To us, all along it has been (important). To win in the playoffs, you have to have that,” Cooper added. “Probably the one thing that’s gone under the radar is how physical we’ve been in both series. I think that’s really helped the cause to where we were. It’s difficult in an 82-game season to bring that kind of intensity every single night. In the playoffs guys are more dialed in.”

Sunday’s 3-1 victory closed out the team’s second-round matchup against the Boston Bruins in five games.

Coming off a week’s rest, the Lightning allowed six goals in losing Game 1.

Over the last three games of the series, including a pair of wins in Boston, Tampa Bay neutralized the Bruins’ high-scoring line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak while not allowing an even-strength goal.

Much of the credit goes to the line of Brayden Point, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, which rebounded from yielding 11 points to the Bergeron line in the series opener to move than hold their own against the Boston trio the rest of the way.

“It’s a four-line effort. You have to have depth. You have to have it. It’s the way everybody bought into their rolls and contributed,” Cooper said.

The Lightning’s depth also showed offensively, with 12 players combining to score 17 goals in the second round.

Point, J.T. Miller and Anton Stralman scored in Sunday’s clincher against Boston.

“For sure, you don’t expect to come in and beat a team like that in four straight games after dropping the first one. We expected a long series,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “I don’t think any team goes in thinking you are going to clean out a team in the second round in five, but it happened. When you play the right way, you get rewarded for it.”

Tampa Bay is the eighth team since 1998 to reach a conference final three times in a four-year span.

The Lightning defeated the New York Rangers in 2015, advancing to the Stanley Cup Final, where they lost to Chicago in six games. They lost the 2016 East final to the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games.

“It’s good, but it will be gratifying if we win two more series,” forward Ryan Callahan said. “We’ve been here before, so the shock and awe of really getting this far really isn’t there. We are happy with our first two series, but there is so much more work to do and we realize that.”

The Lightning will face either Washington or defending champion Pittsburgh. The Capitals lead that semifinal series 3-2 heading into Game 6 on Monday night.

“We’ll watch it for sure, but I think the most important thing at the end of the day is just getting our rest,” Point said, looking ahead. “We’re going to be ready when our time comes, hopefully prepare well, and play some good games.”

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