Friday, September 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning’s run to top of the East rose from last season’s ashes

TAMPA – There were injuries. Lots of them.

And losses. Too many to make the playoffs.

And trades. Ben Bishop, Brian Boyle and Valtteri Filppula moved at the deadline to create cap space and playing time for the next wave of Lightning.

It was a crash-and-burn kind of season for a team picked to play for and possibly win the Stanley Cup.

But …

"There were some positives, for sure," Alex Killorn said.

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Brayden Point received the minutes to develop into one of the Lightning's top players. Yanni Gourde got his feet wet in the NHL. Andrei Vasilevskiy was given a month or so to get used to the role of No. 1 goalie.

Out of the ashes of the lost 2016-17 season grew this one, a season when the Lightning won the division title and the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

Might the Lightning be in this position if last year was not a bust? Maybe. But what we know is this: The injuries to Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan, et al, undercut the postseason plans and nudged the direction of the team.

"Naturally, people always say the injuries, but that was only a part of it," coach Jon Cooper said. "We slipped in the standings, (General manager) Steve (Yzerman) had to make some adjustment to our team just to help us be able to survive for the future but that opened the door for people. That opened the door for Yanni Gourde. That opened the door for Adam Erne. That opened the door for Andrei Vasilevskiy. So, some of the rollercoaster-riding and the speed bumps we hit last year, well the road is a little more paved now."

Where to start?

The goalie is as good a place as any.

With the team's playoff hopes fading and incumbent Ben Bishop a free agent after the season, Yzerman traded him to the Kings at the deadline for prospect Erik Cernak and backup goalie Peter Budaj. That allowed Vasilevskiy, the No. 1 goalie of the future, to be the No. 1 goalie of the present.

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"When you become the starter, you know what to expect. You can fall into a routine. You have your preparations laid out," Canadiens goalie Carey Price said. "Being a starter is definitely easier than being a backup."

Vasilevskiy was tied for the league lead in wins this season with 44.

Next? Point.

He made the team out of camp as a fourth-line winger but took advantage of the injuries to collect more minutes and rose to first-line center.

"Guys went out, the key players for us, so that opened up big minutes. I was able to play more, feel more comfortable, play center, which is what I played growing up," Point said. "I think it was just a big confidence-builder for me to know I could play center at this level. Coming into this season, it made me feel more comfortable."

Point scored 32 points this season, led the team with 12 game-winning goals and is the top shutdown defensive center on the team.

Then there is Gourde, who scored six goals in 20 games last season.

"It was tremendous last year. It gave me a lot of confidence coming into this season. I came into this season, I had a better feel of the NHL level and what it is like," Gourde said. "I had confidence and I rolled with it."

Gourde rolled to 25 goals and 64 points this season.

Yzerman cleared cap space in the offseason by trading Jason Garrison to the expansion Golden Knights and Jonathan Drouin to the Canadiens for rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, a promising 19-year-old rookie who made an impact earlier in the season.

It also allowed Yzerman to sign Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat to long-term deals.

Not only did the Lightning learn about the young players, it  learned about the old guard and how they conducted themselves through a disappointing season.

"You get to find out about players. You get to find out how they react," Cooper said. "Not that you're making prejudgments into this year, but it definitely had an effect. And for myself personally, it was kind of a reset for me of how I need to be moving forward, analyzing what I've done before but also looking myself in the mirror and saying how I've got to get better. All of that was a product of last year."

Contact Roger Mooney at [email protected] Follow @rogermooney50

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