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How the unshakable Lightning pushed Penguins to brink

PITTSBURGH – The measure of a champion is how they react when adversity hits. 

Like when a star player is lost to surgery, or a starting goaltender is lost to injury. Like when there’s a series deficit, or a deficit in the series’ most critical game. Like when you’re on the road, facing an opponent energized by an old friend’s return to the lineup and facing the prospect of being one loss from elimination.

So, all that said after their Game 5 overtime victory at the Pittsburgh Penguins to take a 3-2 Eastern Conference Final lead: How does one measure the Tampa Bay Lightning?

“Let's pump the brakes a little bit here,” said coach, realist and party pooper Jon Cooper. “There's still more series left. We feel good and fortunate that we're up 3-2 and going home, but we still have to win another game.”

He continued. “But in saying that, the more times you get put in these situations and you're behind the wheel navigating what's going on out there, the better you are [equipped] to handle them.”

How the Lightning handled their adversity in Game 5 was a study in patience. They pulled the trigger and blew off some toes twice in the game, giving up goals to the Penguins in the final minute of the first and second periods. They dug a 2-0 hole, and then a 3-2 hole.

What they didn’t do, however, was panic, freak out or do anything dramatically out of character.

“We got hit was adversity a couple of times, but nothing really changed for us. We kept doing the right things, and were rewarded at the end,” said defenseman Anton Stralman. “Character’s a good word to describe this group. Plus experience – we learned a lot last year. I don’t think we get hit by panic or anything like that.”

The Lightning tied the game in a 1:10 flurry of goals against Marc-Andre Fleury, with Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov scoring. After Chris Kunitz netted a goal at the end of the second period, the Lightning continued to push in the third.

“We were playing well the entire game. Certain goals went in and there’s not much you can do about them. Rebounds and stuff like that. But we were happy with the way we were playing,” said Killorn. “They score two goals. It would be easy to sit back and just lay down. But we come back. We’re a team that doesn’t quit.”

Or get flustered. The Lightning didn't get the benefit on some clear penalties in the third. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy had to make some stellar saves, including a robbery of Kunitz. Ryan Callahan thought he had the tying goal, but it rang off the pipe. 

"When it makes that kind of noise, you think there's a chance that that's in the net," said Cooper.

But they kept pushing. Confidently. 

“There’s a quiet calm about that group. Even when we were down 2-0 during that game, on the bench there wasn’t panic. It was just ‘let’s get the next one, let’s get the next one,’” said Cooper.

Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy stops a shot during the second period of Game 5 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Sunday, May 22, 2016 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The next one came from Kucherov, his 11th of the playoffs, as Fleury kicked the puck to his stick for an easy wraparound goal.

The next one after the next one was a puck fired by Jason Garrison that deflected off of Tyler Johnson just 53 seconds into overtime for the 4-3 win. “I told the guys I've never seen a team that likes to play overtime so much but doesn't like to play it for very long,” said Cooper.

Another measure of a champion is how they finish the job. The Lightning were in this very position last season, winning Game 5 in Madison Square Garden … and then got their teeth rearranged like Tyler Johnson's face in Game 6, losing 7-3.

Which is why despite the Penguins’ wasting leads, home ice and an undeniable emotional lift in Game 5, the Lightning don’t believe the Penguins’ elimination is inevitable.

“They’re going to give us their best shot [in Game 6]. It’s been a tight series,” said Killorn. “We’d be kidding ourselves if we thought they weren’t going to come with everything they’ve got in the next game.”

The Lightning sound ready for it this time.

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Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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