Sunday, February 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Five things we learned about Lightning in Round 1

Lightning center Tyler Johnson, struggling with what sounded like flu symptoms, walked gingerly in the short hallway just outside the locker room.

Inside the locker room, forward Ryan Callahan sat at his stall looking like a guy who had put in a double shift at work. Across the room, Alex Killorn stood with sweat still dripping from his head. Goalie Ben Bishop, too.

Defenseman Anton Stralman, out of the lineup with a fractured leg, limped ever so slightly down another hall. And captain Steve Stamkos, stunningly out since doctors discovered a blood clot near his right shoulder, stood near the trainer's room in workout gear but still unable to play.

This scene, immediately after the Lightning won Game 5 and its first-round series against the Red Wings on Thursday night, said volumes about where the Lightning is right now. This is what a Stanley Cup playoff team looks like. Some players wiped out. Some sick. Some hurt. All wanting one thing: win a championship.

This journey, really, has just started. The Lightning has won only one series. Three more remain to win that championship. Many questions remain. But we got a glimpse of some answers, too, during the five-game victory against Detroit.

As Tampa Bay awaits its second-round opponent — it will be the Panthers or Islanders — here are five things we learned in the first round.

1. THE LIGHTNING STILL MISSES STEVEN STAMKOS

The big question coming into the playoffs was whether the Lightning would be able to succeed without Stamkos, who led it with 36 goals in the regular season. Though the Lightning did win the Detroit series, it struggled offensively.

In the five games, Tampa Bay scored 12 goals, an average 2.40 per game. That's not awful, but look deeper into the numbers. For starters, the Lightning relied heavily on one line to do the scoring. Of the 12 goals, 10 were scored by three players: Nikita Kucherov (five), Killorn (three) and Johnson (two).

There's more. In the five games, the Lightning scored only eight even-strength goals. In the final three games of the series, the Lightning scored just one even-strength goal. That was Killorn's Game 5 winner with 1:43 left in the third period. In Game 4, all three Tampa Bay goals came on the power play, and it was shut out in Game 3.

So that means Tampa Bay went the final nine periods of the series with just that one even-strength goal.

That won't be good enough going forward, and because it seems unlikely Stamkos is coming back soon, the Lightning will need more offensive production.

2. JONATHAN DROUIN IS NOW A MAN

One year ago, Drouin was a 20-year-old kid who was a healthy scratch in 21 of the Lightning's 26 playoff games. Then he was shipped to the minors this season. Why? The Lightning saw him as still a little soft, unwilling to go into some of the scary places on an NHL rink where a player has to go to be successful.

It's hard to believe we are watching the same player now. Drouin is engaged physically. He hits and is willing to be hit. And he is playing with confidence.

Simply put, he has gone from looking like a kid to playing like a man.

"I'm unbelievably proud of the way he's handled himself with our team, our staff," coach Jon Cooper said.

"He deserves this."

3. BEN BISHOP IS STILL THE TEAM MVP

If the Lightning is going to make a deep playoff run, it needs its goalie to play lights-out. Bishop has done just that so far. His Game 5 performance against the Red Wings was incredible: 34 saves, including three on breakaways.

"If not for Bish," Callahan said, "we're going back to Detroit."

Because of Bishop, the Lightning is going on to the second round. Fair to say that he is a reliable playoff goalie.

In five games against Detroit, the Red Wings fired 160 shots on goal. Bishop saved 152 of them, and not one of those saves was soft. In 30 career postseason games, he has a 2.08 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. That's elite.

4. THE POWER PLAY MUST GET BETTER

No question the Lightning's power play won Game 4. It scored all three goals in Tampa Bay's 3-2 victory. But in the other four games of the series, the Lightning's power play was a pathetic 1-for-18.

When you're missing a star such as Stamkos and not getting much secondary scoring, the power play becomes critical. It won one game in the first series. It needs to win at least that many in the next round.

5. THIS TEAM HAS GUTS

Let's face it. When we heard that the Lightning was going to go into the playoffs without Stamkos and Stralman, no one gave it much of a chance.

Then it lost grinder J.T. Brown to injury after two games in the first round. Then Johnson got sick in Game 5.

Yet, no hurdle seems too high, no obstacle seems too great, no injury too big to overcome.

"We miss those guys and want them all back, but we go out there with the group that we have," Callahan said. "That's what you do."

That's what this team has done. Without Stamkos, key offensive players have stepped up: Drouin, Kucherov, Killorn. Without Stralman, other defensemen have stepped up. Matt Carle is playing his best hockey in a couple of years. Jason Garrison, too. Andrej Sustr, too. And Victor Hedman, who is averaging just more than 27 minutes per game, has been sensational.

The Lightning might not be the most talented team left in the playoffs, but the first round (on top of the last postseason) showed it has as much heart and mental toughness as any team.

Will it win it all? Maybe not. But no one wants to play this team.

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