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The Tampa Bay Lightning Will Not Go Away

After a heartbreaking Game 4 defeat, Tampa Bay Lightning continue their impressive ability to stick around far after most have written them off.
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DENVER - Jon Cooper paused for a good 15 seconds before answering the one and only question he would take after Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final. 

Having delivered a 6-2 beating on the Colorado Avalanche to cut their series deficit in half just two days before on home ice, the Lightning outplayed their opponent for the vast majority of Wednesday's Game 4, only to surrender a heartbreaking winner to Nazem Kadri in overtime. 

The Lightning were on the verge of elimination -- and they still are, in fact -- staring down the barrel of needing to win three straight games to keep their season alive, with their next chance at survival kicking off less than 48 hours later in Denver. 

And, to make matters worse, Kadri's winner came loaded with controversy, as the NHL's official game sheet listed six Avalanche skaters on the ice at the time of the goal. 

Cooper's tone on Wednesday was that of a eulogy. He was despondent. Wistful, almost. As Cooper would eventually explain, the emotions he felt just moments after a crushing defeat made him unable to answer the questions awaiting him in the cramped Amalie Arena press room. 

So, he walked out, leaving behind him an air of finality to a series that was far from over. 

The next day could not have been more different, though.

 Cooper was his old self again, answering questions with a smile and exhibiting the very trait that has allowed his Lightning roster to pull themselves to the precipice of a dynasty: Turning the page. 

The disappointment of Game 4 had washed away. "Water under the bridge" is how Cooper described it. And the team's performance in Game 5 the following night proved that very fact, with Tampa countering every single punch the Avalanche threw at them, cashing in on every little chance that fell their way while benefiting from another iconic performance by Andrei Vasilevskiy. 

The Avalanche out-shot, out-chanced, and out-hit the Lightning through 60 minutes. But it didn't matter. Tampa would not go away, somehow pulling themselves up off the mat after a near-knockout and into another round of this heavyweight bout. 

"We've been here," explained Cooper following the game. 

"Have we been down 3-1 before? No. But we've been in these situations where we know the feeling of facing an elimination game. We've been on both sides." 

That experience has only helped strengthen the resolve of his team of "gamers", as Cooper describes them. 

Asked to explain just what that means, the answer is very simple. 

"You just watched the definition," Cooper stated. 

"I don't know what else I can say to describe the guys. You're down in a series, in a great environment for the home team. And, how do you show gamesmanship? Everything we just did." 

The Lightning's backs may have been pressed as tightly against the wall as humanly possible on Friday night. But the team didn't view it that way. They saw Game 5 as an opportunity to rally themselves, embrace the challenge, and write another chapter in their ongoing story. 

Their execution solidified it. 

"We talked about it today, that we didn't have a choice," explained Stamkos of the threat of elimination. 

"This was do-or-die for us. Sometimes you get caught in looking ahead a little bit, and this group did a great job focusing on the present. And that was to come in here, in a very tough place to win, and just play a solid game to give ourselves a chance. And that's what we did tonight" 

The battle isn't over, of course. Far from it. The Lightning need to sweep the remaining two possible games of the series -- one at home, where they just dropped an OT decision, and a potential Game 7 back in Denver in front of a crowd that is frothing at the mouth for championship glory. 

The odds are not in their favor. But they don't need to be. This Lightning team finds a way to stick around. And in Game 5, they did just that. 

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