TAMPA - Before Game 3 in Tampa Bay, Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog showed confidence in his team's lineup, especially the depth that took them to two straight wins.
"We've talked about it all season long, about how our depth is what's going to separate us from other teams and push us moving forward," he said.
And while that's not wrong -- especially in Game 2 when just about every bottom-six player found a way to get involved in a significant way -- it was the Lightning's depth that stole the show in Game 3 to make it a 2-1 series.
The Bolts won 6-2, with Corey Perry, Anthony Cirelli, Nick Paul, and Patrick Maroon scoring a goal each. Everyone expects goals from Ondrej Palat and Steven Stamkos, but it's the depth that really gets you far.
"If you're going to go this far in the playoffs, it can't be the same guys scoring," coach Jon Cooper said. "Rarely does a team advance if it's just big boys scoring."
In the case of Paul, that's exactly why the Bolts brought him in at the trade deadline from Ottawa. He has five goals in a third-line role, but has played upwards of 20 minutes a night when injuries have struck the group. His goal was his second of the series, in which he has easily been one of Tampa's best players. His biggest coming-out party, though, was his two-goal game that lifted the Lightning to a first-round series victory over Toronto, a series they trailed heading into Game 6.
"You can see how valuable he is for our team and all the little things that he does," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "He's had some great moments during this playoffs."
Paul's goal was especially big after coming back from an apparent leg injury in the first period. He scored early in the second period and left immediately after. He finished the game with just 13:43 played, his lowest ice time total of the post-season.
"Pauly's obviously a huge part of our team, so we held our breath there for a little bit," captain Steven Stamkos said." Guys are banged up, especially this time of the year, but in true hockey player fashion, he sucks it up and comes out and scores the eventual game-winner."
Perry, an off-season addition, is interesting just for the highly publicized fact that he was on the losing end of the Stanley Cup final in back-to-back years before joining the Lightning. When the Bolts fell down 0-2, the fear of it happening again rang true for a couple of days, only for Perry to get the sixth goal of the game and his sixth of the playoffs.
"He shows game in and game out he's a warrior," Hedman said. "We know from experience how hard he is to play against so it's nice having him on our side."
Cirelli isn't exactly a depth guy -- he's Tampa's second-line center -- but the playoffs have been a struggle for him offensively. An elite shutdown middleman, Cirelli scored just his second goal in 20 games. With seven points, it's the lowest playoff output from the past three years, so getting the game-tying goal at 13:03 was huge, whether he admits it or not.
"It always feels good getting on the scoresheet and helping the team in that way," Cirelli said. "But I think, as a team, I don't think anyone in that room cares who's scoring goals as long as get the W that night."
Typical hockey player answer. It's also typical for hockey players to shout out their teammates, and he was quick to point out how valuable Paul was to the winning effort.
"Pauly has been unbelievable ever since he got here," Cirelli said. "He's the hardest-working guy, he's always in the right spot, he's giving all his effort and he can make plays and score big goals like he has throughout the playoffs."
Maroon is no stranger to the playoff spotlight. He's looking to grab his fourth Stanley Cup in a row, which would make him the first player since the 1980s-era New York Islanders to achieve that.
In Maroon's case, he has managed to consistently play a role on teams despite being nothing more than a 20ish-point player during the regular season. Through 20 games, Maroon has four goals and six points, but his physical edge and ability to get players off their games has been so important.
He sticks around for a reason. It's not to score goals, but when he does, that's invaluable for a winning squad like Tampa's.
"For Patty to get one and Perrs to get one and especially, Point not going tonight and for Paul to leave the game for a while and step on the ice and score in his first 10 seconds on the ice, that was very uplifting," Cooper said.
Tampa still has a long road to the Cup. They still trail 2-1, but can tie it up with a strong Game 4 at home. That would make it a best-of-3 to close things out, and we don't know if we'll see Point again in the series -- or perhaps Nikita Kucherov, for that matter.
So, it's not a one-time show for Tampa's scoring depth. It just gets tougher from here.