Saturday, January 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Inexperienced Lightning hopes to grow up in a hurry

TAMPA — As it turns out, Lightning right wing J.T. Brown said, a Stanley Cup playoff game isn't that much different from the regular season.

"We're still lacing up our skates the same way," the rookie said.

A cute answer. But it came in response to what might be one of the most critical questions about the Eastern Conference first-round series with the Canadiens:

Does it matter that Tampa Bay has so little playoff experience on its roster?

Of 26 Lightning players eligible to participate in the postseason, 15 entered Wednesday's Game 1 having played zero or one Stanley Cup playoff game. Montreal had just two.

Eleven of those Tampa Bay players were in the lineup for the 5-4 overtime loss, of which coach Jon Cooper said he was "extremely disappointed in the way we played."

That is not all on the inexperienced players. Defenseman Victor Hedman, in his fifth season, did not play well. Neither did Teddy Purcell, in his seventh, or Valtteri Filppula, in his ninth.

Still, Tampa Bay has a lot less institutional knowledge, which can be crucial when things are going badly and a steady hand is needed to settle things down.

"It's hard to know what it's like if you've never seen it or been on the ice when it's going," goalie Anders Lindback said. "It's one thing to watch on TV. It's a big difference to be part of it."

Cooper has been adamant that Lightning players who won the AHL Calder Cup title in 2012 with Norfolk and went to last season's final with Syracuse — 10 did one or both — can draw on those experiences.

"A lot of those guys have won seven of the last eight playoff series they have been part of," he said. "There's a lot to be said for that. Winning is development. I know this is a little bit of a grander stage, but when the puck drops, I don't think our players will be thinking that."

Rookie center Tyler Johnson, who played under Cooper at Norfolk and Syracuse, agreed.

"Playoffs are playoffs. It's do or die," he said. "Obviously, the NHL playoffs, it's faster and the players are better, but the situation as in must-win games, that's pretty much the same."

But there are differences. For Brown, it was the big stage.

"It's a lot more intense," he said. "Everything is magnified. It feels like the game is faster."

And there are distractions. "Look around the (locker) room," second-year wing Alex Killorn said, "There's so much media."

To help process it all, defenseman Mike Kostka said, most important is "what goes on with yourself. If you understand the stakes are higher, you're naturally going to put more pressure on yourself to perform. It's understanding that and dealing with your own preparation and what you need to go through."

Several of Tampa Bay's Stanley Cup playoff newbies did well in Game 1. Killorn and wing Nikita Kucherov scored in their first playoff game.

Lindback, in his second, had 39 saves. Defenseman Radko Gudas, in his first, had nine hits, and Johnson, in his first, had an assist, was 12-for-24 on faceoffs and was plus-1.

On the other hand, center Cedric Paquette, in his first playoff game and third NHL game overall, made a grave defensive error that led to the winning goal.

Mistakes happen to everyone, Brown said.

"That's just an easy way out to say you don't have experience," he said. "We've all been playing so many games this year, it's still the same hockey game. Everyone is inexperienced at one time. I don't think that's an excuse as to why we would lose."

Perhaps, Lindback said, as the team prepared for Game 2 tonight at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, "but we had a lot of guys who played their first playoff game (Wednesday). Now that's out of the way, and we can focus on what we should do."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected] View his blog at lightning.tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @LightningTimes.

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