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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Why Game 5 is crucial to the Lightning

BRANDON — Three things that popped into my head as the Lightning and Devils get ready to play Game 5 Saturday afternoon at Amalie Arena.

1. I'm going to do something that a hockey team in the playoffs would never do, not in a million years.

I'm going to talk about the next series.

If the Lightning hopes to do well in the second round — whether it's going to be against Boston or Toronto (psst, it's going to be Boston) — then it would be smart to wrap up this series against New Jersey as soon as possible.

Like Saturday in Game 5.

There are two really big reasons why the Lightning needs to win Game 5.

One, of course, is to win the series and advance to the next round. But, two — and just as important — it could use the rest before the start of the next round.

"If you have a chance to win a series, do it,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

It's at this point that Cooper must give the obligatory quotes about not wanting to let the other team have life, to make sure it doesn't climb back in the series, that it's not over until somebody wins four games, blah, blah, blah.

"Yeah, you don't want to have to go back to Jersey and play more,'' Cooper said. "You know you don't want to do that. And it's the travel and all that.''

But, as a coach, he knows just how valuable it is to have some time to rest and relax in the postseason.

So the Lightning's plan is simple. Win Game 5. Find a nice easy chair. Pour a cold beverage. Put its feet up. And then watch the other playoff teams beat the stuffing out of each other by playing seven games, all of them in quadruple overtime if possible.

"It's all about just trying to get rest,'' Cooper said. "And if you have this opportunity, you have to take advantage of it. … These series take a lot out of you.''

Not just physically, although we've already seen the Lightning suffer bumps and bruises to Ryan Callahan, Dan Girardi and Tyler Johnson. (Callahan is the only one to miss whole games.)

"Mending the body is one thing,'' Cooper said, "but don't underestimate mending the mind.''

The shorter this series goes, the better prepared the Lightning will be for the next round. That makes Game 5 more critical than you think.

2. Man, this has been a physical series.

"I think part of it is it's looked at as a pretty physical series because you're looking at two teams you don't really think of as playing that way,'' Cooper said. "These games are on the line and both teams are stepping up. I think sometimes when it's not expected, it seems like it's more than unusual. But it's two teams trying to win, and that's why it is the way it is.''

Okay, there's some truth to what Cooper says. But when you see highly skilled scorers such as Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos throwing thunderous checks like they did in Game 4, you wonder if something is up. Did the Lightning have a big talk to start being more physical, or are the players simply taking advantage of big hits when they are there?

"Just take it,'' Stamkos said. "Nothing is talked about or planned. It's playoff hockey. So it's going to be physical.''

Still, the Lightning and Devils are known more for speed and finesse than hitting everything that moves. And while this series hasn't been all that dirty, it has been nasty.

"It's hockey, it's playoff hockey,'' Stamkos said. "There are no surprises out there. Guys are sacrificing, they're playing physical and you just have to be prepared. We're not going to change anything.''

Why should they? So far, it has worked just fine.

3. Talk all you want about New Jersey's Taylor Hall and the Lightning's Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. But do you know who the best hockey player in this series is? Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman. It's not even close.

Ultimately, Vasilevskiy and New Jersey goalie Cory Schneider are the most important players because they are goalies and goalies impact a hockey game more than any one player. But Hedman is the best player on the ice.

On Thursday, along with the Kings' Drew Doughty and the Predators' P.K. Subaan, Hedman was named a finalist for the Norris Trophy, handed out annually to the league's best defenseman. Hedman deserves to win the award, and it could be the first of multiple Norris Trophies.

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