Lightning passing mettle tests this postseason


Lightning passing mettle tests this postseason

TAMPA, Fla. — How to handle the difficult moments: It’s what ultimately shows mettle, be it in a person or a team.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have taken their tests, so to speak, this postseason. So far, they've passed.

The Lightning might be young. They might not have the postseason experience of the Blackhawks. But they know how to handle themselves when things get tough. Now that mettle gets the ultimate test beginning on Wednesday, when the Lightning host the Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Tampa Bay came back from a 3-2 deficit against the Detroit Red Wings in its first-round series and then blanked the New York Rangers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final to advance to the Cup Final. But coach Jon Cooper said the Lightning started learning lessons two seasons ago when Steven Stamkos broke his leg in November 2013. Several players, including Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn, got increased responsibilities in Stamkos’ absence. That and getting swept by the Montreal Canadiens last spring had the right effects on the Lightning.

“We went into the summer with the sting of what had happened. I think it fueled us this year,” Cooper said. “We’ve had a history of not going into these long losing streaks because of the attitude that’s in that room. It’s been pretty cool to watch them as the series has gone on.”

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Viktor Hedman also pointed to last year’s loss to the Canadiens as a wake-up call.

“To get swept left a bitter taste in our mouth after that series,” he said. “The experience we gained from that helped our growth. We faced a lot of adversity with injuries, but nothing seems to bother this team. We keep pushing through. We’re very proud to be a part of this team.”

Tampa Bay has a lot of young players who haven’t seen too many playoff series, let alone lengthy ones. But the Lightning’s offseason acquisitions helped bolster their seasoned-veteran presence. Last summer the Bolts signed Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle, both of whom went to the 2014 Cup Final with the New York Rangers. They also signed Brendan Morrow, the former captain of the Dallas Stars who went on several postseason runs with that team, including one all the way to the 2000 Cup Final.

Morrow said he’s been impressed with the Lightning’s resolve.

“It seems like the bigger stage, the tougher the game, they rally and find ways,” he said. “It’s kind of been the same group that’s doing it; we’d like to find secondary scoring to help the Stamkos and (Tyler) Johnson lines. But every test we’ve been put in, every big game we’ve (rose) to the occasion.”

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Tampa Bay might not have a core like the Blackhawks that has been tested through many lengthy postseason runs. But the Lightning do have a good mix of players, a lot of youthful speed and confidence, be it from past experiences or this postseason’s tests.

“Every round has given us a different challenge. To go up three games in a round (vs. Montreal), then give it up and then have to win that. To have a chance to win at home against the Presidents Trophy champs (Rangers), blow that, then have to go up and win in an environment that nobody’s really won before,” Cooper said. “Every time there’s been that little bit of adversity, we feel like we’re down and out, they come back with a knockout punch. But that started two years ago, and the attitude has not changed.”

How Blackhawks plan to handle Corey Crawford's workload

How Blackhawks plan to handle Corey Crawford's workload

Corey Crawford is back and it didn't look like he skipped much of a beat. The Blackhawks were handed their first regulation loss of the season to the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday, but the 33-year-old netminder stopped 27 of 30 shots (.900 save percentage) in his season debut and made several timely saves to keep his team in it.

In the larger picture, it was a win based on how well Crawford looked between the pipes.

"Yeah, I think it is," coach Joel Quenneville said after practice on Friday. "It's one of things we were wondering, how he would handle post-game and how he came in today. Very encouraging signs. He felt good in all aspects of what he went through and dealt with, and practiced well today too, so that was good."

The first one is in the books.

But what's the plan going forward? Will Crawford be on a "pitch count" or will they treat him like they have in past seasons when he was healthy?

In the past, Crawford has generally started somewhere in between 55-58 games per season. Part of that has been because of injuries. Another part is the Blackhawks have had reliable backups, which allowed them to give Crawford an extra night off here and there to keep him fresh.

It's not unreasonable, though, to think Crawford could flirt with 50 starts, considering he missed only five games to start the season. And they can still accomplish that by playing it safe.

The Blackhawks have 13 more back-to-backs this season, which gives them the opportunity to start Cam Ward at some point in each of them. That leaves room for another 15 or so starts to sprinkle in for Ward that could serve as rest days for Crawford and still being on track to start around 50.

Obviously, the Blackhawks want to be careful with how much they ask of Crawford because concussions are tricky to deal with and every player responds differently to it.

His return comes at a time where the Blackhawks are slated to play seven games in 11 days after playing just two in the previous 10. Thursday marked the start of that stretch.

"He’ll tell us how he feels and we’ll go from there and make those decisions," Quenneville said.

The Blackhawks have been on record saying they prefer not to carry three goaltenders. But in this case it makes sense. At least in the short term.

Quenneville said Friday that the Blackhawks will reevaluate the situation at the end of the weekend following the beginning of a busy stretch where they'll play three games in four days.

"Yeah, that’s the mindset," he said. "Let’s see how we handle these three in four and then we’ll address it."

Crawford is expected to start on Saturday in Columbus, making it his second start in three days. That's when they'll get a better sense of how he's handling things.

If it were up to him, Crawford said he feels he's prepared for it.

"Yeah, sure," Crawford said. "Why not? I've been working hard with [strength and conditioning coach Paul Goodman]. He's got me where I need to be, so I'm in shape right now. Why not?"

Hawks Talk Podcast: Thoughts on Corey Crawford's season debut


Hawks Talk Podcast: Thoughts on Corey Crawford's season debut

In the latest Hawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle, Jamal Mayers and Charlie Roumeliotis recap Corey Crawford’s season debut after missing nearly 10 months with a concussion.

Mayers talks about the Kitty system that Niklas Hjalmarsson and Vinnie Hinostroza probably dealt with in their returns to Chicago.

The guys also discuss what’s next for Crawford, the upcoming matchup against Artemi Panarin and the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the Blackhawks’ biggest areas for improvement.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below, and be sure to subscribe, rate us and write a review!