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Lightning finally wins one in the post-season

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TAMPA

It was going to come. Of course it was going to come.

A team this good doesn’t keep coming up empty. A sport this close doesn’t end up one-sided. Disappointment can’t last forever.

And yet, Jon Cooper wondered.

When, exactly, would winning start?

For the Lightning, it finally happened Saturday. After going 0-for-five over the previous two seasons, Tampa Bay finally took one to the bank Saturday afternoon in a 5-1 victory over Detroit. Finally, Ben Bishop was solid in victory, and finally, Tyler Johnson played like a grown-up and finally, Andrej Sustr found the back of the net.

Finally, Cooper got into the win column.

The Lightning is now tied in its best-of-seven series against Detroit at 1-1. The teams play next in Detroit on Tuesday and on Thursday before returning to Tampa for a game next Saturday.

For Cooper, victory had been a while coming. His team was swept by Montreal last season, and it lost its first game this year to Detroit. But Johnson, Bishop, Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat and the rest of a young Lightning team finally played as well as the regular season hinted it would.

Eventually, however, a team is judged by its post-seasons. That’s where the trophies are handed out. That’s where the money is counted.

“This one took over a year,’’ Cooper said. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t saying “Gosh, when will we get our first one?’’ You have to figure it’s eventually going to come.’’

Another defeat or two, and perhaps this team would have started to talk to itself. Instead, it should have come away in fine shape mentally. It outplayed the Red Wings in the two games. If it can steal one back in Detroit, it should be in fine shape.

About time, said Tyler Johnson, who scored two goals in the victory. For Johnson, too, it was the first success in the post-season.

“I remember walking off the ice last year against Montreal,’’ Johnson said. “I had never been swept in my life. I had been lucky to be on some good teams and to have had some playoff success. But to be swept…I can remember thinking how disappointing everyone back home would be.’’

In Game One, a 3-2 loss to Detroit, the Lightning had a staggering 46-14 shot advantage. But there were some little things they did not do that they tightened up. For one thing, they scored two power play goals. For another, they went back to providing traffic in front of the net.

It paid off. Detroit came away with home ice advantage, but you might argue over who had the advantage in the mental game. Detroit has the home ice advantage now, and Tampa Bay isn’t nearly as good on the road. Tampa Bay has won the more recent game, by the bigger margin, and it embarrassed both Detroit goalkeepers. It chased Peter Mrazek after two periods, and it got one against Jimmy Howard. So who has the edge? Whose goaltender will be better?

“We just beat a good team,’’ said Steven Stamkos, who had two assists. “It’s 1-1. We have to find a way to win on the road. This is a tough team we’re playing against. We expect a big push from them.’’

The Lightning actually got off 16 fewer shots in its four-goal win that it had in its opening loss, and Cooper suggested the Red Wings were actually better in defeat. So what was the difference?

To Cooper, a lot of it was the traffic in front of the net. “We played angry,’’ he said. “We were desperate.’’

For instance, Johnson’s first goal came after a teammate hit the post and the puck caromed right to him. He tucked it in for an early lead.

Then came a second-period explosion when the Lightning scored three goals on four shots. Killorn jammed home a puck just before he was leveled by a Detroit player. Then came the goal by Sustr, who did not score in 72 games for Tampa Bay this year. It had  become a running joke with the team that he never scored. Then, Johnson scored on a breakaway as Detroit’s Danny Dekeyser fell.

Just like that, it was clear sailing for Tampa Bay.

“You have to have confidence, and we’re a confident bunch,’’ Stamkos said. “But we realize this is just one game. We expected a tight series and we have one.’’

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit [email protected]

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