Lightning's road success becoming a key to Stanley Cup hopes
CHICAGO (AP) Thousands of fans crowded Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa to watch Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, braving both rain and 92-degree Florida heat while celebrating another victory for the Tampa Bay Lightning more than 1,000 miles to the north.
The way their team is playing on the road, those fans might hope the Lightning don't come home until they've got the Stanley Cup.
Tampa Bay has won four straight road games by a combined 13-4, the culmination of a remarkable turnaround for a subpar regular-season road team. The Lightning are 8-3 on the road in the postseason, with a chance to add a ninth win in Game 4 on Wednesday night.
Tampa Bay's road transformation is the type of development that wins championships, even while the players doing it can't explain why.
''I'm not sure if we know exactly the one detail,'' forward Brendan Morrow said Tuesday. ''If we did, we'd do it at home, too. It could be a combination of a lot of things. But maybe when we get on the road, there may be isn't as much focus, because we can't have it, on matchups. We just go out and play. We're a team that when we have no hesitation to our game, we're very successful. So that could be part of it. You turn off the thinker a little bit.''
If the Lightning aren't thinking, it's working wonders - particularly lately. They took three in a row from the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden in the Eastern Conference Finals last month before staring down Chicago and its raucous, anthem-cheering fans to seize Game 3 on Cedric Paquette's late goal.
The Lightning have already compiled the best playoff road record in franchise history, and they're two wins shy of the Los Angeles Kings' NHL-record 10 road victories during their 2012 Stanley Cup run.
This is the same team that went a pedestrian 18-16-7 away from Amalie Arena during the regular season. The Lightning had the fewest road wins among the 16 playoff teams - and fewer than Columbus, Dallas and San Jose, who all missed the postseason.
''The way we've been able to play on the road, I think, has been the thing that's impressed us, and probably a lot of people,'' captain Steven Stamkos said. ''We didn't have a great record during the season on the road. That was something a lot of people talked about. It's just our willingness to play that tight checking game - knowing that if there's limited scoring chances, we have the talent and the depth. If we get those one or two at the end, we can find a way.''
While remarkable, the Lightning's transformation isn't without playoff precedent. The 2012 Kings also weren't an impressive road team in the regular season, winning just 18 games - but when they sneaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed, they rattled off 10 consecutive road wins while rampaging to their first title.
Stamkos and defenseman Victor Hedman are the only two Tampa Bay players left from the last roster to make a significant playoff run, losing the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011. The playoffs' progressively bigger stages can be intimidating to newcomers - or they sometimes don't know they're supposed to be intimidated by the Blackhawks and their wild fans.
''I truly believe we've grown as a team through some of our struggles,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. ''You just think of (Game 3). We're in a pretty hostile environment. It's a 1-1 game. We go down in the third. There was no hang-the-head (attitude). It was, `OK, now we've got to dig the heels in and go get this one.' That's what I love about this group. It's just the never-say-die.''
The Lightning's road grit showed in the third period of Game 3: Just 13 seconds after Tampa Bay yielded Brandon Saad's go-ahead goal, Ondrej Palat charged the net and evened the score. Several minutes later Victor Hedman set up Cedric Paquette's tiebreaking goal, and the Lightning calmly put it away in the final minutes.
With one more road win, the Lightning will be on the brink of their second Stanley Cup title largely because of their work away from Tampa Bay.
''I think we've learned since the beginning of the playoffs, it might not happen the first shift,'' Stamkos said. ''Might not happen with five minutes left. It might happen with three minutes left, like last game. When you have that confidence, it's easy to look down the bench to the guy beside you, knowing he could be a hero.''