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.”