Doubt the heart of this Lightning team at your own peril


TAMPA — By night’s end, they were a hurting bunch.

Nick Paul looked like an old man skating up the ice, Nikita Kucherov was cross checked into the boards and Brayden Point was back on the training table after trying desperately to come back from injury.

Three years and 65 playoff games later, the toll of taking on all comers in the Stanley Cup playoffs may finally be catching up with the Lightning in a variety of ways.

Except for this:

There ain’t a damn thing wrong with their hearts.

Beaten, embarrassed and left for dead in Denver 48 hours earlier, the Lightning stood tall one more time in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final Monday night with a 6-2 win against Colorado at Amalie Arena.

They’re still behind in the series and they still need to win a game on the road, but no one is questioning the desire, the determination, the audacity of this Lightning team.

“I guess that’s how you get to the places we’ve been,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Pretty great effort.”

This is how you come back from humiliation.

By taking back your identity.

After watching the Avalanche control the puck and force the action in the first two games of the series, the Lightning were more aggressive on both ends of the ice.

Trailing 1-0 in the first period, Anthony Cirelli won a puck battle deep in the Colorado zone and began racing up the ice without hesitation. A quick pass to Pat Maroon by the boards got Cale Makar off his tail and then, after Maroon passed it back, Cirelli skated around Devon Toews and fired a shot into the net.

Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) beats Avalanche goaltender Darcy Kuemper (35), while Avalanche defenseman Devon Toews (7), left, joins the play during the opening period. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

A guy who plays defense with unbridled intensity, it was Cirelli’s first goal after 13 consecutive scoreless games.

“It always feels good getting on the score sheet,” Cirelli said. “But as a team, I don’t think anyone in that room cares who is scoring the goals. As long as we get the W at the end of the night, that’s all we want.”

The Lightning have already trailed more this postseason than in the previous two postseasons combined. They have given up more goals and their ability to intimidate seems to have waned. But even through all of that, they remain just three victories from a third consecutive Stanley Cup.

“We’ve got a really good crew in there, and we take pride in there,” said Maroon, who scored a goal of his own in the second period. “You don’t want to go down 3-0 against that team, so we had to find a way.”

This is how you keep hope alive.

By not being afraid to take a risk.

The Lightning were staring at another first-period deficit after an apparent goal by Valeri Nichushkin but the players on the ice indicated the puck may have crossed the blue line four seconds earlier.

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Cooper and his staff checked iPads, monitors and TVs looking for a replay that would confirm their suspicions but couldn’t find a definitive angle. If a challenge was requested and turned out incorrect, the Lightning would be assessed a penalty and the Avs would go on the power play with a one-goal lead.

With the referees and players on the ice preparing for the center ice faceoff, Cooper finally decided to issue the challenge. The goal was overturned.

“From an end zone angle, the guys inside were like, ‘I can’t tell if that’s white or if it’s just grainy,’” Cooper said. “I’m like, ‘Well, let’s go with white.’”

This is how you stare down impending doom.

By not flinching.

The whole world, it seemed, agreed that Colorado looked like the younger, fresher, faster and hungrier team after two games of hockey. The Avs were 14-2 in the postseason, and getting star turns up and down the lineup.

The one thing the Lightning had going for them was their reputation, and that had taken a beating in the thin air of the Rocky Mountains.

But it turns out, the Lightning still had some desperation in their equipment bags. They still had some energy in their tired bones. They still had enough pride in their souls to come from behind after another shaky start against another upstart team.

Just like they did against Toronto. Just like they did against New York.

Paul had fallen awkwardly after being pushed down by Josh Manson near the end of the first period, and appeared to have a pulled muscle of some sort. He hobbled off the ice, and then went down the tunnel into the locker room before the intermission.

When the second period began, Paul was back on the bench and, 12 seconds after returning to the ice, took a pass from Ross Colton and slammed it past Darcy Kuemper for what turned out to be the deciding goal.

“Guys are obviously banged up, especially at this time of the year. But in true hockey player fashion, he sucks it up and comes out and scores the eventual game-winner,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “You can see how valuable he is to our team and all the little things he does.”

This is how you hang on to the Stanley Cup.

By not going down quietly.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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