Lightning’s depth the difference in Game 3

The Tampa Bay Lightning got a late goal from Cedric Paquette and held on to defeat the Chicago Blackhawks and take a 2-1 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final.

CHICAGO — The meeting was called after the Tampa Bay Lightning dropped Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final and the message was remarkably simple.

Jon Cooper painted a picture of what it would take to win a championship and made it clear to his depth players than they needed to do more.

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“We’re going to go far with (Tyler Johnson’s) line and (Valtteri Filppula’s) line doing what they’re doing, but I don’t know if we can go all the way,” Cooper said. “They need help.”

What a response.

The biggest reason the Lightning now hold a 2-1 advantage over the Chicago Blackhawks is not because of the stars. Who on earth could have predicted it would be the J.T. Brown-Cedric Paquette-Ryan Callahan trio leading the way?

When the third-liners play this well it gives an already dangerous team one more weapon. Tampa can now beat you with the triplets or Steven Stamkos or Victor Hedman or Ben Bishop or a forgotten unit that was silent all playoffs long until arriving on the big stage.

It hardly seems fair.

Paquette is a 21-year-old who started this season in Syracuse. Most hockey fans couldn’t find his hockeydb page with a map, compass and GPS unit. But that didn’t keep Cooper from giving him the assignment of going head-to-head with Jonathan Toews, which he’s handled more than capably.

As if that wasn’t enough, there Paquette was burying the winner with 3:11 to play on Monday night thanks to an all-world play by Hedman.

Even his teammates are impressed.

“I can’t say enough honestly,” Anton Stralman said of Paquette. “He’s been stepping up these three games. I don’t think anybody saw that coming and it’s really fun to watch.”

The late-game heroics were enough to lessen the focus on Bishop, who pulled himself from Game 2 for unknown reasons and appeared to labour during stretches of this one. The big goaltender struggled in particular when getting back on his feet, occasionally using his stick for assistance like a cane.

Despite that, he fought through a 19-shot barrage in the first period and showed mobility early in the third by coming across his crease to deny Brandon Saad.

The Lightning remain mum about what is ailing him, but the Blackhawks are convinced he’s not at 100 per cent.

“Something obviously is up,” said winger Marian Hossa. “What it is, we just have to take advantage of it.”

Still, this was a vintage Tampa performance. They flirted with danger early and fell behind late, only to see Ondrej Palat tie it 2-2 just 13 seconds later.

You may back this group into a corner but you should always expect a response. It doesn’t matter if the game is being played in Detroit, Montreal, New York or Chicago.

The only reason they’re still alive in June is because of their top two forward lines, which scored all but one goal in a seven-game win over the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference final.

Now the less-heralded guys are breaking through, with Paquette having scored twice in this series and Callahan getting the opener in Game 3.

However, a good chunk of the credit for that particular goal should go to Hedman, who found him alone with a ridiculous 120-foot slap pass that pierced through all of the Blackhawks on the ice. The Swede is positioning himself as a favourite for the Conn Smythe Trophy.

“This is clearly his coming-out party,” said Cooper. “He sets that one up and then makes a big-time play on the winner. He was a monster out there tonight.”

Added Stamkos: “Words can’t describe the force he was out there.”

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The Blackhawks have been in this position before — having rallied from 2-1 down against Boston to win the 2013 Stanley Cup — but they’ve almost certainly discovered a new-found respect for this particular opponent.

After “two tough losses,” in the words of coach Joel Quenneville, the challenge is real.

Toews and Patrick Kane have yet to find the scoresheet in this series. Patrick Sharp has one assist. The temperature is rising.

The big dogs may get you to the dance, but the Lightning are trying to prove that you need everyone to cross the finish line.

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