J.T. Wyman hoped to play in the NHL this season. It didn't happen.
But if the forward had to be in the minors, he said he could not be in a better spot than with the Lightning's AHL affiliate in Syracuse, N.Y.
"This is not an everyday occasion what we've got going here," Wyman said. "We know how special this is."
What the Crunch has going is a chance to give the Tampa Bay organization its second straight Calder Cup title, and 12 players who last season won rings with then-affiliate Norfolk face Grand Rapids in a best-of-seven final starting tonight at Syracuse.
But the Crunch's story is about more than the achievements of its talented players. It is about the actualization of an organizational blueprint in which a player's character is as important as his skills and camaraderie is as crucial as understanding the coach's system.
"Whether it's for Syracuse or Tampa, it's a very important factor," Syracuse general manager Julien BriseBois said of evaluating character.
"We do a lot of research on it. We do background checks. We pass on some really good players because we don't think they fit with our team chemistry and attitude, and we've brought in some players who maybe would have been passed up by other teams but we knew they would make our team better because they're the right fit for what we're trying to do."
The result is a team that finished third in the Eastern Conference despite an in-season coaching change and the Lightning poaching some of its top talent.
It is a team with its own bowling league. A team that between playoff series had a pig roast and arranged an appearance by a hypnotist, who Wyman said had No. 3 goalie Eric Levine dancing like Michael Jackson.
Really, it is a team that seems more like a family.
"I've been involved in pro hockey for 25 years at both the NHL level and minor-league level," coach Rob Zettler said, "and I've never been part of a team that's so close."
"It's just a welcoming environment," Wyman said. "Guys come in, and they're able to be themselves. We stress enjoying every day we spend together. It's a great opportunity for us to bond as individuals and a team. It's to the point everyone knows what they need to do to be part of this."
And the result on the ice?
"They go to bat for each other," said Zettler, who went from assistant to head coach when Jon Cooper was promoted to the Lightning after Guy Boucher was fired in late March. "They will tell each other when someone is not holding up their end of the bargain. It's a really cool atmosphere."
"It's the trust we have for each other," defenseman Radko Gudas said. "In the playoffs, it's harder hockey, and you fight for every inch. The better friends we are, the better it is on the ice."
It has been quite a postseason for the Crunch. At 11-1, a sweep of Grand Rapids, the Red Wings' affiliate, would give it the fewest losses among Calder Cup champions that had to win four playoff rounds.
Wing Ondrej Palat is tied for the league scoring lead with 20 points and leads with 15 assists. Center Tyler Johnson is third with nine goals and tied for the lead with three winners.
Defenseman Matt Taormina is tied for the lead at plus-15, and goalie Cedrick Desjardins has a 1.86 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.
"This is the ultimate learning experience before you get to the NHL, playing in games this meaningful and at this pace and with this level of desperation," BriseBois said.
"It bodes well for our organization because I believe a very important number of them will end up playing for the Lightning and helping us win in the NHL. At the end of the day, that's what it's all about."
Lightning prospect update: Defenseman Dylan Blujus was invited to the U.S. national team junior evaluation camp, an audition for the 2014 world junior championship team. Blujus, 19, 6 feet 3 and 198 pounds, was drafted 40th overall in 2012, and this season he had two goals, 29 points and 57 penalty minutes in 68 games with Brampton of the junior Ontario league.