Do you believe in the Hockey Gods? They may be ephemeral, but in double overtime of Game 5, they reached down from their perch and pointed at Victor Hedman. The titan-sized Tampa Bay defenseman was one of the most visibly-driven members of the Lightning and it was his shot that propelled the Bolts past the Boston Bruins 3-2, sending the franchise to the Eastern Conference final.
This was by no means an easy game for either team and if you want to believe in the invisible hand of fate, the signs were everywhere.
Adversity? Indeed: the Lightning played most of the game without their best forward, as Nikita Kucherov left the game after taking an errant high stick from Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara in the first period. While Kucherov did briefly return in the second period, it was clear he did not feel as though he was in healthy enough of a condition to continue and the wondrous right winger was gone for the remainder of the contest.
Without Kucherov, the Lightning power play was rudderless – especially on the ensuing four-minute advantage Tampa Bay was given with Chara in the penalty box. So the Bolts had to fight for their offense in what truly seemed like a must-win game, even though it was Boston facing elimination.
“We knew it was going to be a battle of wills,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “It was guys trying to keep it simple, make plays, win puck battles and be smart when it’s on your stick. Probably not as pretty as we like, but that’s how it goes sometimes.”
Atonement? Look no further than the hero Hedman, who took a late tripping penalty in regulation, potentially opening the door for a Boston goal that would not be answered. Had the Bruins won this game, momentum would have been viciously on the side of the B’s, particularly if it turns out that Kucherov is damaged for more than a day.
But the Lightning killed off that Hedman minor and lived to see overtime. And then double overtime. Tampa Bay’s most engaged players in that final frame were Hedman and Brayden Point, both of whom were buzzing and clearly aware that you don’t get many second chances to bury a team like the Bruins.
Valor? That crown belongs to Hedman, who played more hockey than any other skater on the night, with 38:25 of ice time – a little more than Boston D-man Charlie McAvoy (36:39), who missed time after getting drilled by Cedric Paquette. Far from sitting back and playing it safe, Hedman played to his strengths when the game was on the line. He jumped up in the offense and he played aggressive. When he got the chance to whip one to the net with Patrick Maroon causing havoc in front, he took it and now the Lightning have shed the NHL’s best team in the regular season, not to mention last year’s Stanley Cup finalist from the East.
“Overall we’re a hungry team,” Hedman said. “We know Boston is a great team – they won the Presidents’ Trophy for a reason. I’m very happy with how we played defensively, and we made it tough for them. The way we’ve come together as a group in this time has been phenomenal.”
Next up for Tampa Bay? Vindication. This is the franchise that coughed up the final two games to Washington en route to a Capitals Cup run. This is the franchise that was swept by Columbus after posting one of the best regular seasons in NHL history. Now the Bolts seek to write a much more positive chapter.
“It’s maybe a different mentality,” Hedman said. “We pay attention all over the ice. We take pride in playing defensively and playing as a group all over the ice. We learned you don’t need to score four or five and hope ‘Vasy’ will bail us out. Everyone in that room feels very comfortable in how we play. Everyone knows their roles and knows what is expected of them.”
‘Vasy’ is of course goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has stood tall for the Lightning and was another huge reason the Bolts knocked off the Bruins. One of the best netminders in the league, the young Russian doesn’t have a Cup final under his belt yet, but he certainly looks like he has one in him now.
“It really helps when you’re getting contributions from everyone,” said coach Jon Cooper. “Based on what happened last year, guys want to be on the ice to rewrite a new story and he’s no different. He’s done a heck of a job.”
And with Boston vanquished, the Bolts are one step closer to vying for the franchise’s second-ever Cup title.