After splendid Game 5, Lightning not ready to breathe easy

TAMPA, Fla. — They walked off their plane to chants and cheers from a small group of fans, the entire scene a moment the Tampa Bay Lightning hope they won’t live again until the Stanley Cup Final.

They came to Madison Square Garden on Sunday. They saw. They conquered in decisive fashion, largely thanks to their best defensive effort of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Early Monday afternoon, players and coaches returned to Tampa standing one victory from competing for the NHL’s largest reward, and the Lightning have no desire to board another flight unless it’s bound for Chicago or southern California. With a similar defensive effort in Game 6 against the New York Rangers on Tuesday night at Amalie Arena like the one they produced in Game 5, another bite of the Big Apple won’t be necessary.

"At this point, it just feels great to win games and keep winning," Lightning center Brian Boyle said. "That’s the only objective. The way we did it was pretty gutsy, I think, and it is a good feeling. But again, it’s one more win toward where we want to go. Our job’s not done."

Their objective remains incomplete, but the only thing missing from coach Jon Cooper’s day-after assessment of the Lightning’s execution in a 2-0 victory Sunday was a rubber stamp that read, "APPROVED." He said his team "took big steps" in being the complete group that’s necessary to survive and advance to the finish line of a marathon that’s paved with blood and bruises. He said his team looked after its net much better than it did when allowing five goals in both Games 3 and 4.

"I sit back and look at what we did last night," Cooper said, "and I’m really pleased."

Why not?

There have been more memorable games in this breakneck best-of-seven series — the Game 3 drag race will be tough to top — but the Lightning earned a 3-2 lead because they played with control and allowed less chaos in placing a gag order on Madison Square Garden.

Goaltender Ben Bishop, questioned after shaky moments in Games 3 and 4, redeemed himself with 26 saves. The penalty kill was successful on all four tries, making it the first time since Game 1 of this series that the Lightning’s PK pitched a shutout. Players acted as diving shields when deflecting pucks. All told, this was Tampa Bay’s best defensive effort since shutting out the Detroit Red Wings in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

Finally, the Lightning flexed the proper amount of defensive muscle to complement their offensive flash.

"It’s been run-and-gun," Lightning winger Brenden Morrow said. "It’s not real typical of what we wanted to do from day one of training camp. … We kind of left Bish out on an island the last couple games before last night. But last night, it was just a focus on back pressure, taking time in space."

The Lightning know they haven’t earned the chance to exhale yet. A loss in Game 6 would be a kick to the gut for them after the momentum gained in Game 5. Such a development would be a devastating blow, one that would create a risky situation in a return to Gotham. They should expect the Rangers, tested in scrapping from behind, to play with urgency to try to force a Game 7 on Friday back at Madison Square Garden.

Still, consider this familiar terrain for Tampa Bay. The Lightning returned home after a loss to the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. In Game 6, they handled their business at home by throttling the visitors 4-1 on a night when Tampa Bay outshot Montreal 28-19 and the Canadiens looked mentally drained. The Lightning seized the moment by crushing an opponent’s will.

Can it happen again? Absolutely.

Does anything feel too large for them? Not anymore.

If Tampa Bay strings together more efforts like the one Sunday in New York, something that’s no pie-in-the-sky possibility, the Lightning not only will advance to their first Stanley Cup Final since 2004, but they’ll win the whole thing. There have been victories in this postseason run with greater flair, but nothing looked beyond the reach of the team that earned a no-frills win in Game 5.

"Bish was huge back there," Morrow said. "Guys were eating pucks and blocking pucks, and you could see pretty early on the desperation and urgency of our game and our willingness to block those shots and compete."

There remains a need to compete and earn one more victory before the Lightning can discuss the Stanley Cup Final. But if their defense shines Tuesday, the next flight will be westward bound.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.