TAMPA, Fla. – The surging Tampa Bay Lightning can attest to the highs and lows of the NHL playoffs.
Two weeks after dropping into a 3-1 hole against Pittsburgh in the opening round, the Lightning not only have survived but are headed to the Eastern Conference finals. Tampa Bay completed an improbable comeback against the Penguins and then swept the top-seeded Washington Capitals.
They’ve done it with Dwayne Roloson’s strong goaltending , superior special teams play and opportunistic offence. Caps coach Bruce Boudreau issued a warning to whoever faces Tampa Bay next: “Don’t underestimate them.”
Not that the Boston Bruins or Philadelphia Flyers would be tempted.
The Lightning have rattled off seven consecutive victories to close out the first round and cast aside Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals in the conference semifinals. Four of those wins were on the road, including a 1-0 Game 7 shutout in Pittsburgh.
They’re back in the conference finals for the first time since winning their only Stanley Cup championship in 2004.
Naturally, the current run begs for comparisons that six-time all-star Martin St. Louis said are premature.
“Every time you win a playoff round, they want to compare the teams. I think they’re both great teams, but the ’04 team we won the whole thing. You can’t compare,” St. Louis said Thursday.
“When it’s all said and done, maybe you can compare the two teams then. It’s hard to compare them right now. We’ve won some playoff rounds, but we’ve still got a long way to go to be where that ’04 team was. At the same time, do I feel as good about my team right now as I did in ’04, absolutely. … We’re relentless. We’re hungry.”
St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Pavel Kubina are the only players on Tampa Bay’s roster remaining from the championship season.
“The similarities? Obviously, we have some good young players hungry to be successful, and we have a great mix of veteran leadership as well. Obviously, great goaltending,” St. Louis added. “There are a lot of similarities. But at the same time, there’s a lot of differences, too.”
St. Louis scored his sixth goal of the playoffs during Wednesday night’s 5-3 win that eliminated Washington. Sean Bergenheim—part of Tampa Bay’s third line—scored twice, giving him a team-leading seven goals after only scoring 14 during the regular season.
Bergenheim and third-line mates Steve Downie and Dominic Moore had six goals and seven assists against the bewildered Capitals.
“I’m not surprised. … Right now, he’s giving us some dominating minutes,” St. Louis said of Bergenheim’s offensive contribution.
“That whole line—that’s deflating for another team when they feel they’re getting beat by the third line,” St. Louis added. “Our top guys played some good hockey in the series. But let’s not kid ourselves. That line is a big reason we finished that series in four.”
The Capitals agreed.
“This is the first team we played in a while that had three lines that really came at you. … They never quit. They’re a good-skating club, and they came at us pretty good,” said Boudreau, whose team struggled after eliminating the New York Rangers in the first round.
“So we haven’t seen offence like that in a while. You don’t see it in the regular season, for sure, because of the intensity of the game,” the Washington coach added. “And the Rangers worked really hard, but they just didn’t have the players that these guys have in the top nine.”
Bergenheim, a six-year veteran appearing in his first NHL post-season, signed with the Lightning last summer as a free agent after spending parts of five seasons with the New York Islanders. He’s never scored more than 15 goals in a season, but repeatedly found himself in the right place at the right time against the Penguins and Capitals.
“I don’t feel any pressure. … The mind-set I’ve had in games is just to go out there and do our best, then after the game you see what the result is. You can’t do more than your best,” Bergenheim said. “That’s a mind-set I think we’ve got to have because it doesn’t help having too much stress. You have to play relaxed.”
Sweepingthe Capitals will give the Lightning some much-needed rest after playing—and winning—five games in eight nights. Three of the victories were on the road, and Games 3 and 4 at home against Washington were played on consecutive nights.
With the exception of answering questions during a conference call with reporters, St. Louis did not plan to do much hockey-related on Thursday’s day off.
“Winning in four is great, but it’s not something we predicted. We thought it was going to be a much longer series,” the finalist for the league MVP award said.
“Obviously, we got some fortunate bounces, great goaltending and everything kind of went our way. We’ll take that and get our guys some rest. … That first series was pretty tough on us,” St. Louis added. “I’m just happy to be able to take some time away from the game, rejuvenate, enjoy my family for a few days and get back to work.”