TAMPA — It ain’t over til it’s over, but here’s five reasons why the Lightning have an excellent chance to advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the second consecutive season:
Coaching: Jon Cooper has kept the Lightning fresh against both Detroit and the Islanders with optional practices, and deployed 11 forwards and seven defensemen, a tactic that he has used numerous times during the season and with which players are comfortable. In all four games in this round, Tampa has rallied as the game progressed, coming up short in just Game 1. The one negative has been the club’s inability to ratchet up the intensity in the first periods, during which they have been outshot and outscored, 6-4. That shouldn’t be a problem at home Sunday in Game 5, in front of 21,000 fans at Amalie Arena, where they are 4-1 in the playoffs.
Ben Bishop: The cool, calm goalie, who led the NHL in goals-against-average this season (2.02), was rusty after a week-long layoff before the series and was pulled in Game 1. But he rebounded quickly. In the last three games, he is 3-0, allowing just six goals with a 1.97 GAA and a .931 save percentage. A Vezina Trophy finalist this season, the 6-foot-7 netminder has been a wall at the posts and helped derail the Islanders forecheck and dump-ins with his stick-handling and passing skills, deftly getting the puck from behind the net to open defensemen or forwards in the defensive zone.
Victor Hedman: In the much anticipated matchup with John Tavares, the Swedish defenseman has the lead going into the final turn. Tavares has not been on the scoresheet in the last three games. Hedman, who is playing in all situations — even-strength, power play and penalty kill — has averaged 28 minutes per game in the series and scored two goals and six points. The word around has been that if you can shut down the ever-changing Tavares line, you have a chance to win and Cooper will have the last change on home ice.
Nikita Kucherov: Every contending team needs a consistent scorer this time of year and Kucherov, 22, who led the team in scoring during the regular season with 30 goals and 66 points, has an NHL-leading eight playoff goals. If the Russian youngster, a flat-out bargain at $700,000 annually, keeps this up, he’ll be a candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. The second round draft pick in 2011 helped eliminate the Rangers last season, and has stepped up again, along with Tyler Johnson, who has 12 points in nine playoff games this year and 37 in 39 career playoff games.
Jonathan Drouin: The 20-year-old rebel with a cause might not even be here if not for Steven Stamkos’ blood clots which forced him to the sidelines on April 2. In one of the more improbable returns of the season, Drouin was called up on April 7 after requesting a trade in November, and walking away from the Syracuse Crunch on Jan. 20, triggering a suspension. When that ended, the third overall pick in the 2013 draft had scored nine goals in his last nine AHL games. He asserted his toughness by returning after a thunderous hit by Thomas Hickey in Game 3 and is a stickhanding wizard who has eluded the Islanders in the offensive zone and found teammates in shooting lanes. In nine playoff games, he is 1-8-9 and getting better each start.