Lightning strike: Tampa Bay heads to Cup finals
NEW YORK (AP) One thing to count on when the Tampa Bay Lightning play for the Stanley Cup: They won't be intimidated by anything.
Not by the surroundings after handing the New York Rangers their first Game 7 loss at Madison Square Garden to win the Eastern Conference finals.
Not by having to play in Anaheim or Chicago after taking the last three games in New York and also winning twice in the opening round at Detroit and twice more in Montreal in the second round.
Not by a series going the limit, because they are 4-1 in Game 7s.
Tampa Bay is also 9-0 when scoring first this postseason.
When the finals open on Wednesday night, the Lightning also will be well rested, and ready for the biggest postseason step of all.
''I think we have a lot of character on this team,'' said Tyler Johnson, who leads the playoffs with 21 points. ''I think we have a lot of resilience and a lot of pride. When you get spanked the way we got spanked (in a 7-3 loss in Game 6), you are not too happy with yourself and you have to change things. For whatever reason we were able to do that as a team.''
Johnson's line, with Ondrej Palat, who scored the second goal in Friday night's 2-0 victory, and Nikita Kucherov is one reason. Another is Ben Bishop, who always seems to rebound from poor performances with stellar ones. He got his second straight shutout at the Garden with 22 saves against the Rangers.
''Anytime you can play for the Stanley Cup, it's pretty fulfilling,'' Bishop noted. ''We said after the game we still haven't accomplished anything yet.
''We're four wins away, it's going to be probably the hardest four wins of all of our careers. We know there's a lot ahead of us.''
What's ahead will be an opponent the Lightning fared well against. Tampa swept Anaheim, 5-3 and 4-1, and split with Chicago, losing a shootout on the road, 3-2, then beat the Blackhawks in Tampa, 4-0.
Having won games in all manners, the Lightning have proven their versatility. That should come in handy in their first Cup finals since winning the trophy in 2004 against Calgary.
''The leadership core on this team is the best I've ever been a part of,'' captain Steven Stamkos said. ''Probably the best as a unit.''
Also helping this Lightning team are three former Rangers who played in the five-game loss (three in overtime) to Los Angeles in last year's finals. Anton Stralman might have been the best defenseman in this series, Ryan Callahan came on as the series progressed after undergoing an appendectomy just before it, and Brian Boyle is an underrated center and terrific penalty killer.
Their experience from last spring can't hurt, either.
''This whole series have been a roller coaster,'' Stralman said. ''Both teams giving up a lot of goals, scoring a lot of goals, and then we had two shutouts in huge games. I guess just the way we stepped up in these big games and then just really laid it all out there and played so well defensively, it shows a lot of growth.
''I said at the beginning of this playoff we were a growing team. We're not at our best yet. We are getting challenged in the playoffs and it feels really good right now.''