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Lightning-Capitals: How Ryan Callahan and his linemates overwhelmed the Caps

TAMPA — They're called grinders. Pluggers. Checkers.

They're lunch-pail guys. Like 9-to-5ers. They get up every day and go to work. They punch in and punch out for no glory or credit. But the business would fall apart without them.

They're the fourth-liners. On the Lightning, that's Ryan Callahan, Cedric Paquette and Chris Kunitz.

They're known more for their grease in their elbows than the wizardry in their hands. They're applauded for their hard work, not their skill. They're value is in checking and playing defense, not setting up and scoring goals.

Just the term "fourth-liner'' has a negative connotation, as if it's a suggestion that it's the worst line on the hockey team. And for a lot of teams, that's true. For those fourth-liners, they're barely noticed.

Not on the Lightning.

The fourth line won the Lightning a hockey game Saturday night. A big hockey game. And because of the play of these grinders, the Lightning is one victory away from reaching the Stanley Cup final.

The most valuable players on the ice for Tampa Bay were Paquette, Callahan and Kunitz. They were so good Saturday and have been so good throughout these playoffs that it's not even right to call them fourth-liners.

"They're one of our lines,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "That's what it is, and a real good one. They play a winning role for our team, and they inspire our group. They pull our team into the fight.''

They led the fight Saturday. Right from the start.

Yes, they did what they always do. They blocked shots. They threw checks. They got in the way of the Capitals. They frustrated the big guy, Alex Ovechkin.

That's doing a lot.

But they did so much more.

Paquette scored his first goal of the playoffs just 19 seconds into the game to blow the roof off Amalie Arena and gave the Lightning a lead it would never relinquish.

"For us, we talked about the start of the game,'' Paquette said. "We don't want to get scored on, that's our job. But to get a goal 19 seconds in was really big for us and a bonus.''

Bonus because it's a line that isn't expected to score.

But it happened again to start the second period.

Callahan scored his second of the playoffs only 33 seconds into the second period. It gave the Lightning a 3-0 lead and turned out to be the eventual game winner as Tampa Bay held on for a 3-2 victory.

"We'd like to contribute as much as we can,'' Callahan said. "Our focus is to keep the puck out of the net. But to have success we need all four lines contributing. Would we like to be on the scoresheet more than we have in the past? Definitely.''

But that's not that's line primary role in this series. The three have been assigned the near impossible task of trying to stop one of the best players in the world:  Ovechkin.

"That's not an easy thing to do,'' Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi said. "That's a tough job.''

And they have done their job. Ovechkin did score a goal with the goalie pulled Saturday night. But when it was five-on-five with the fourth line going up against Ovechkin, the Lightning was the better team.

"I think we obviously understand our role on the team,'' Kunitz said. "We kind of have that mentality of going out there and doing whatever we can to help the team win. … (Callahan and Paquette) put their bodies on the line and for those two guys to get big goals … it takes everyone to win in the playoffs. Not just the superstars.''

But these guys should be considered superstars. At least this time of year.

"They play the game the right way,'' Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said.

Earlier in this series, after the Lightning had fallen behind 2-0, Cooper shuffled the lines. All except one.

"He didn't change that line for a reason,'' McDonagh said.

Columnist Tom Jones and staff writer Roger Mooney break down the Lightning’s 3-2 victory as the series heads back to Washington with Tampa Bay leading 3-2

Posted by Tampa Bay Times - Sports on Saturday, May 19, 2018

Not only has that line done a good job on Ovechkin, it provided the Lightning with the offensive spark it needed Saturday night.

"I've learned so much from playing with them,'' Paquette said. "I'm having fun.''

So is the Lightning thanks to its fourth line.

Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones.

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