TAMPA, Fla. — There were other moments, many moments, in Thursday’s Tampa Bay Lightning game that decided the outcome, one that showed the fight of a team clawing to earn home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Hockey is such a blur that it’s rare one moment stands out after the final horn. That’s why it’s one of the best sports to watch live. It doesn’t have the delays of baseball and football, and it doesn’t mimic basketball’s herky-jerky pace. It’s like strapping into an IndyCar for three hours, the thrill constant.
On the ice, the world zooms by.
But there was one moment in the first period that rose above the rest in the Lightning’s 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. It was hard to forget. It involved Tampa Bay goaltender Anders Lindback, who started in place of the injured Ben Bishop. He made two saves seconds apart that were tremendous: One denied winger Tye McGinn, the other defenseman Braydon Coburn.
Lindback stretched out with his glove to snag a shot by McGinn, one that looked like a sure goal. Then he went to his knees to do the same on an attempt by Coburn, cradling the puck from danger. He looked like a panther sliding between the posts, as if he had an instinct where to go at precisely the right time to stonewall the Flyers. The sight was impressive.
"It was a bouncy one," Lindback said of the sequence. "I remember. It came around the net. They threw it back in, and I kind of didn’t have control of the situation. Then I just looked up, and the puck was coming toward me. It felt like it was a lot of those today. A lot of pucks were all over the place."
There was a standing ovation at Tampa Bay Times Forum. The crescendo of applause gained strength in time. The scene was like a quarterback who gets smacked in the chin but still zips a 30-yard dart for a touchdown. The moment built trust.
That’s what Thursday was like for Lindback. It was a display of trust. It was a display that made people sit back and think, "Maybe this guy has the stuff to do the job with so much at stake."
Yes, he had 25 saves in a victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday, but he still owned that dreaded "inconsistent" tag. He entered with a 6-12-2 record. Neither his goals-against average (3.11) nor his save percentage (.884) were noteworthy. Bishop had become the Lightning’s top netminder for a reason.
"I try to approach this and see it as a huge opportunity," Lindback said Thursday morning, after exhaling a bit. "It’s what I’ve been working hard for every day and all my career."
It was interesting hearing Lindback talk before the game. He seemed relaxed. He seemed collected. He seemed honest. There was no deer-in-the-headlight look with him, like you might expect from someone tapped this late to preserve Tampa Bay’s hopes for a deep Stanley Cup run. He was not overwhelmed.
He was asked if the talk about Bishop’s injury being too much for the Lightning to overcome motivated him.
"Yeah, it is for me, and it is for the whole group," Lindback said. "We had some tough injuries earlier this year too. I thought we came together as a group, and that’s what we have to do now too. Obviously, it’s big shoes to fill, and Ben has been unbelievable all year. I can’t really say that I’m going to go in there and match what he has been doing. Obviously, I’m just going to try to do my best and be as good as I possibly can."
He was asked if Thursday’s game would be easier, knowing he’d be the guy from the start.
"In one way, it’s good to just get thrown in there, because you don’t have much time to think," Lindback said. "But sure, it’s different when you can prepare."
He was asked how he’d stay grounded.
"It comes down to going out there and playing well and, in every situation, be there and be the difference-maker," Lindback said. "That’s what it’s going to come down to. I guess it starts in here and starts with everything you do and (you) just try to get it into your mind that it is what it is and go on from here."
Lindback was a difference-maker most of Thursday. His performance was amazing, really. Time after time, the Flyers charged at him, wave after wave relentless.
But time after time, most of the time, Lindback turned them back like a big, blue brick wall. He had 34 saves, and Lightning winger Ondrej Palat "scored" one of the Flyers’ goals. This night had to be frustrating for Philadelphia.
"He’s seizing the moment," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
There’s no telling where Lindback’s story will lead. The Lightning remain vague about Bishop’s injury. Reportedly, it’s a left elbow issue. It doesn’t sound good, and Cooper refused to elaborate when asked about Bishop’s condition Thursday morning.
But perhaps it’s too soon to bury Tampa Bay’s chances with Lindback. He still must show more to gain the trust Bishop earned. It won’t come easy. It’s built in time like with any high-profile position: Closers, quarterbacks, 3-point specialists who take the last shot with a palm in their face and their team down two. The spotlight is bright in net.
The doubt surrounding Lindback was understood. It remains understood because he has more to prove. But games like Thursday add more to his tale. This chapter was a cliffhanger in a good way.
"It amazes me what Lindy has done, his ability to stay so positive, to be a great teammate, to be the hardest-working guy out there in practice, whether it’s before or staying out after," said Lightning center Steven Stamkos, who had a goal in the third period. "I’m really excited for him to get this opportunity."