TAMPA, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Lightning are proud, yet hardly satisfied with a turnaround season that nearly ended with a trip to the Stanley Cup finals.
A franchise in disarray before Boston financier Jeff Vinik purchased the club in March 2010 and overhauled the front office, the Lightning also made a dramatic transformation on the ice under first-year general manager Steve Yzerman and coach Guy Boucher en route to a surprising run in the playoffs.
A 1-0 loss to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals stopped the Lightning’s bid to play on hockey’s biggest stage for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2004.
Nevertheless, Yzerman and Boucher have laid a solid foundation for the future.
“I think there’s hope at all levels in the organization. I think that’s what’s impressive,” Boucher said after Friday night’s loss in Boston.
“From the inside, I see what’s going on and … it’s trickled down to the players and the staff and myself,” the NHL’s youngest coach added. “And certainly we always want more. That was our motto all year long.”
The Lightning lured Yzerman away from his job as a vice-president for the Detroit Red Wings, the only team he played for during a 22-year career in which he scored 692 goals and was part of three Stanley Cup winners.
And while the Hall of Famer insisted from Day 1 that there would not be an easy fix for a team that had fallen on hard times, several key decisions—including the hiring of Boucher—helped the team make the playoffs for the first time in four years and then prosper against higher seeded opponent in the playoffs.
The fifth-seeded Lightning overcame a 3-1 deficit to eliminate No. 4 seed Pittsburgh in the first round, then swept top-seeded Washington in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“The guys are so resilient. If people knew how banged up the guys are right now, it’s incredible. We’re talking about (Pavel) Kubina and (Sean) Bergenheim not playing, but there’s guys playing in there, their bodies are just barely hanging on there,” Boucher said after Boston’s Nathan Horton scored the only goal in Game 7.
“So from the inside, this was the end. I mean, there was nothing left. There was nothing left in the tank,” the coach added. “And I think it just shows that everybody wants more, players and everybody else, and that’s the path we’re going to take, definitely.”
Yzerman brought in Bergenheim, Simon Gagne and Eric Brewer, but no personnel move was bigger than the January acquisition of 41-year-old goaltender Dwayne Roloson, who was instrumental in the team emerging as a contender.
Roloson shut out the Penguins on the road in Game 7 of Tampa Bay’s opening-round series. He stopped 37 of 38 shots against the Bruins on Friday night.
“He kept us alive,” Lightning forward Ryan Malone said. “It’s unfortunate we couldn’t give him any support.”
Tampa Bay’s Big Three of Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and captain Vincent Lecavalier carried their share of the load during the regular season and playoffs as well.
St. Louis was second in the NHL with 99 points during the regular season and shares the league lead with 10 goals during the playoffs. Stamkos ranked second with 45 regular-season goals and former 50-goal scorer Lecavalier rebounded after a couple of disappointing seasons to develop more of a well-rounded game that Boucher said helped the team as much as having another big-time scorer.
“He just wanted me to buy into the system, wanted everybody to buy into the system,” Lecavalier said. “He told me if everybody buys in, if you buy in as the captain, I think we’ll have a successful season.
Yzerman, meanwhile, brought a sense of calm to an organization that made three coaching changes in two years before his arrival.
“I think any great leader has a vision, and I think up to now he certainly has lived up to the vision that he out forward for everyone,” Boucher said.
“We started the year, half the players were new and we were expecting to struggle for a while. And it didn’t happen,” Boucher added. “These players were carefully chosen, not just for their impact on the ice, but also on the type of individuals that they are.”
St. Louis, Lecavalier and Kubina, who missed the last 10 games of the playoffs with an injury, are the only holdovers from Tampa Bay’s Stanley Cup championship season.
A six-time all-star and a finalist for league MVP, St. Louis liked the prospect for a quick turnaround as soon as Yzerman was hired last May.
“What he’s done in his career … I just had a good feeling about it,” St. Louis said. “Everything that’s gone on the last year has been unbelievable, a 180-degree turn.”