Don't look now, but the Lightning are playing like Stanley Cup champions again

Ondrej Palat dished out a pair of assists, Nikita Kucherov scored the eventual game-winning goal, and the Tampa Bay Lightning evened the series by defeating the New York Rangers 4-1 in Game 4.

They were not themselves.

Maybe they were banged-up and exhausted. That would be understandable after slogging through more playoff games (63 and counting) in a 22-month span than most NHLers get in a career.

Maybe they were too rusty, too rested. That, too, would be understandable after sitting outside the ring and watching the fight for nine days while their opponent, the New York Rangers, arrived high off Game 7 desperation.

Whatever the cause, the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning tiptoed into this Eastern Conference final — their sixth in eight years — resembling a group that might finally be ready to pass the torch.

They gave the puck away like Costco hands out free samples on a Saturday. They linked passes only occasionally. They fed the Rangers power play and made Igor Shesterkin appear better than their own all-world goaltender.

Something clicked.

Something changed.

Something awakened.

Ahead of his group’s cool and controlled 4-1 home victory on Tuesday night, coach Jon Cooper pinpointed when the Lightning swerved course toward a 2-2 series knot.

Down 2-1 in New York after the first period in Game 2, Cooper chopped forward Nick Paul’s intermission TV interview short. He wanted every player in the dressing room, so he could lose it on them.

“Truth be told, I blew a gasket,” Cooper explained on Hockey Night in Canada. “I had to get the boys’ attention.”

By the 12-minute mark of the ensuing period, Cooper sensed his group had rediscovered its recipe — the one that leads to banners hung and boat-parade hangovers.

“They took it to us,” Cooper told reporters. “We had to stop the Rangers’ roll.”

Young, fast and free, the Rangers stormed into Florida with a 2-0 series lead and — with star Tampa centre Brayden Point into Week 4 of recovery from a significant lower-body injury — a decided edge in health.

They leave with two injured centremen of their own, zero even-strength goals, and the pressure of reversing momentum in what is now a best-of-three to play the Colorado Avalanche for the Stanley Cup.

Second-line fixture Ryan Strome suffered a lower-body injury in Game 3 and cut Tuesday’s morning skate short. Though Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant was hopeful he’d dress Tuesday, Strome was replaced by Kevin Rooney.

Filip Chytil’s evening ended with an upper-body injury from a Victor Hedman check in the second period:

Down two playmakers up the gut, Gallant went into triage mode.

He threw 10 different forward lines at the wall in Game 4, and the only goal he could muster on Vasilevskiy was a 6-on-4 Artemi Panarin power-play marker in garbage time with Shesterkin pulled in desperation.

If you find yourselves sudden underdogs with home-ice advantage, which is scarier:

That the Lightning’s top line of Ondrej Palat, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov is scorching hot, caving your guys whenever they hop the boards?

That, with a long series in the cards, Point is optimistic to make a Game 6 or 7 comeback?

Or that Vasilevskiy — a sub-.900 goalie in Round 1 against Toronto — is now back to a .925 save percentage, the same mark he posted when he won the 2021 Conn Smythe Trophy?

“He’s getting his mojo back,” Cooper declared.

Ruh-roh.

The champs’ wire-to-wire win Tuesday began with Pat Maroon chopping home a rebound created via a brilliant net-drive and dangle from stay-at-home defenceman Zach Bogosian on Tampa’s first scoring chance of the night.

“That’s Bogo playoff magic,” said teammate Jan Rutta.

Kucherov’s first 5-on-5 goal of this postseason was another pretty one. Palat sprung him for a counterstrike breakaway up the middle, and Kucherov buried the puck five-hole on Shesterkin.

“He’s won a Hart Trophy. He’s been an electrifying player. He’s got two Stanley Cup rings. I think when teams go that far, each team has those type of players on them,” Cooper said.

“That’s what Kuch is. He’s a unique, special talent. Anytime you’re the last team standing, there’s a player or maybe two who is a game-breaker. He’s one of them for us.”

Another game-breaker, Stamkos, pounded a Palat rebound in the net for insurance, and Palat tossed in an empty-netter for good measure.

Look out. The champs are looking more and more like themselves every period.

“We’re going to have to take it from them. They’re not going to give us nothing,” Gallant said.

Nothing but their best.

“We’re one of three teams left here. You expect their best. You want their best,” New York defenceman Jacob Trouba said.

“And we want to show we can beat the best. We feel we’re an up-and-coming team. We’ve arrived. We want to play these games.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Tampa played with a heavy heart in Game 4, missing assistant coach Derek Lalonde from the bench.

Lalonde’s 74-year-old mother, Donna, passed away Monday. Derek left town to be with his family.

“We talked about it in the room,” Anthony Cirelli told Sportsnet’s David Amber. “We’re going to go out and get one for him and his family.”

• Ondrej “Contract Year” Palat has 13 points in his past 13 games and leads his team with a plus-7 in these playoffs.

• Shortly after Ric Flair was shown on the Amalie Arena Jumbotron, Tampa's Brandon Hagel and the Rangers' Frank Vatrano dropped the gloves for a spirited but unlikely scrap.

The fight was Vatrano’s first in his 400-game career and Hagel’s first as a member of the Bolts.

“I crosschecked him a little bit after the whistle, and he said, ‘Let’s go.’ So, say less,” Hagel explained.

“That’s the fun of the game and what people want to see.”

• “What are you laughing at?”

• Fifteen games into the postseason and Alex Killorn (25 regular-season goals) remains the only regular Lightning forward without a goal. But don’t criticize his effort to Cooper.

“I think he’s played fabulous. He does have a goal. It was just taken off the board. But you can't judge all these players on how many pucks they put in the net. It's hard enough because they judge themselves, but we don't judge them that way,” Cooper insisted.

“It is: Are they putting themselves in a position to help our team win? And, yes, it’s great to look on the scoresheet and see your name. But as our guys have been well aware the last few years, it's way better to see Lightning with the number that's more than the opponent. And I think that's a big reason why we've had success.

“I think Killer’s been awesome.”

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