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Lightning-Devils: How the NHL’s top offense went on the defensive

TAMPA — It was a couple of days after the Lightning beat the Bruins at home late in the regular season when associate coach Rick Bowness talked about how the defensive effort used in that shutout victory was the one the Lightning would need in the playoffs.

It is not how many goals you get in a postseason game that matters.

"It's what you give up," Bowness said.

The Lightning advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals because it did not give up much during the final two games against the Devils.

Saturday's 3-1 victory in the Game 5 clincher was the second consecutive game in which the Lightning allowed one goal and turned the Devils top scoring line into a non-factor.

Up next is the winner of the Bruins-Maple Leafs series, with Game 1 at Amalie Arena a possibility for Thursday night.

It appears the Lightning, the team that led the NHL in goals during the regular season, can play playoff defense, too.

"Obviously, we've had quite the regular season putting the puck in the net, but we've preached defense," said Ryan Callahan, who returned to the lineup Saturday after missing two games with an upper-body injury and scored the empty-net goal that iced the victory. "It's something we realize in the playoffs that how you win is making sure you take care of your own end."

It was something the Lightning struggled with at times during the regular season. It was something coach Jon Cooper and Bowness harped on. It was something the players were tired of hearing but knew the coaches were right about.

"We were winning games, and we weren't happy with how were playing defensively cause we knew this time of year we had to be good defensively," Callahan said. "I thought over the last two months we really concentrated on it and we honed it. We played really good defensively this series."

The addition of defenseman Ryan McDonagh and left wing J.T. Miller at the trade deadline, and the emergence of rookie center Tony Cirelli have  strengthened the overall team defense.

Times columnist Tom Jones and Roger Mooney break down the Lighting’s series-clinching 3-1 victory over New Jersey Saturday at Amalie Arena. Post your questions here and they’ll answer them.

Posted by Tampa Bay Times - Sports on Saturday, April 21, 2018

Putting Cirelli on a line with Alex Killorn and Yanni Gourde allowed Cooper to form another grind line with Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Callahan.

It all worked against the Devils.

McDonagh and defenseman Anton Stralman teams with various forward lines — most notably Brayden Point, Gourde and Killorn — helped limit league MVP favorite Taylor Hall to four shots during the last two games. Taylor took only two Saturday during just more than 18 minutes of even-strength time.

It helped that the Lightning had five power plays Saturday, keeping Hall and Nico Hischier on the bench.

And having Andrei Vasilevskiy to backstop the defense is never a bad thing. The Lightning allowed just two goals during the final six periods of the series. Neither came when the teams were at even strength.

"It was a team effort (Saturday)," Callahan said. " 'Vasy' stood on his head when he had to. (The Devils) had some surges there, as you would expect. We played well defensively, too. That's a recipe for success in the playoffs, and we took care of our own end."

Stralman pointed out another aspect of the Lightning's game that often went missing during the regular season.

"To play with the lead in the third period, that was also one of our struggles, and that goes hand-in-hand with defense," he said.

Stralman said the entire team bought into protecting its net first and playing the entire 200 feet of ice. That is why the Lightning held on to a one-goal lead in the third period of Game 4 in New Jersey and was able to protect a one-goal lead though much of Game 5.

The first goal came from Mikhail Sergachev in the first period. The second came from Nikita Kucherov at 12:27 in the third. The Devils' Patrick Maroon scored on Vasilevskiy with three minutes to play during a 6-on-5 after goalie Cory Schneider headed to the bench.

The situation grew tense, but the Lightning held its composure. It closed out another series the way it normally does in a clincher: with suffocating defense.

"The boys, they know how to close out a game," Cooper said. "When it comes to playoffs, you need your habits, you need your defensive habits, and you look down the line, they dug their heels in and understood to put team ahead of self. In that end, that's what they did, and when you do that,  good things can happen."

Contact Roger Mooney at [email protected] Follow @rogermooney50.

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