CHICAGO – The Tampa Bay Lightning last made it as far as the Eastern Conference final just four years ago. That might not seem like a long time, but in hockey parlance, it can be an eternity. It certainly has been that for the Lightning.
The Lightning came within one goal of going to the Stanley Cup final that year. Instead, the Boston Bruins won Game 7 of the series by a 1-0 score and went on to defeat the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup final. In fact, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman are the only members of that team who are still with the Lightning.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper was a pro rookie coach in Norfolk. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat were still playing junior hockey, while Jonathan Drouin and Cedric Paquette hadn’t even reached that level yet. Alex Killorn was in his third year at Harvard. Andrej Sustr was playing at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and goalie Ben Bishop was playing in Peoria, making his was as a pro in the St. Louis Blues organization.
To think that Stamkos and Hedman, with seven and six years’ NHL experience, respectively, are elder statesmen on this team, is a good indication of just how young it is. But you would not know they way it has played and how it is handling the pressure of playing in the Stanley Cup final. Valtteri Filppula is the only player on the roster with a Stanley Cup ring, but he’s two wins away from having a lot of company.
There might have been a time when this team would allow its emotions to get the better of it by getting caught up in being so close to winning the Cup. But these playoffs seem to have prepared this group to deal with the situation it faces heading into Game 4 Wednesday night. For such a young group, there has been a real business-like attitude, particularly after they’ve won the past two games.
“The one thing after every single game is the guys have said that we haven’t accomplished anything yet,” Cooper said. “We really haven’t. There are 30 teams in the league and only one team is fortunate enough to hoist the Stanley Cup. We’ve put ourselves in a position that I guess now we have a 50 percent chance. But still it’s the race to four, it’s not the race to two. We’re inching our way along, but we’re not there yet. I don’t think anybody’s looking ahead.”
Stamkos and Hedman were part of a team in 2011 that overcame a 3-1 deficit against the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins to win the first round series in seven games. But more importantly, twice this group has erased 3-2 series deficits to come back and win. In each series, that necessitated winning an elimination game on the road, where the Lightning is a remarkable 8-3 in this year’s playoffs.
“I’ve said it now the past couple games, we’re finding consistency at the right time, we’re able to deal with those different emotions,” Stamkos said. “That’s when you need it most at this time of the year, being able to respond to a big win and a tough loss. Our group has been able to do that. It’s just continually gotten better as we’ve gone through this process together.”
Game 4 will present that opportunity again. After its come-from-behind win in Game 2, the Lightning was pounded in the first period of Game 3, only to have Bishop’s goaltending and Chicago’s bad luck around the net conspire to keep the game tied 1-1. In reality it could have been 4-1 and the game would have effectively been over. The Lightning will have to guard against a similar letdown in Game 4, particularly knowing that a split in Chicago would be considered a huge success. On the other hand, if the Lightning can steal another one, it will suddenly be entertaining the prospect of having a chance to win the Stanley Cup on home ice Saturday night.
But that would be getting ahead of itself. “This is going to be a good test for this group,” Stamkos said. “Obviously they have the experience. But we’re going through it. You have to go through these situations to gain that experience. We seem to rise to the occasion every round.”