Sunday, June 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jones: How far can experience carry Lightning in playoffs?

BRANDON

Are we there yet?

For the past nine months — ever since the night it was eliminated from last year's Stanley Cup final in six grueling games by the Blackhawks — the Lightning has been like restless kids in the back seat, bouncing up and down and asking over and over again:

Are we there yet?

Finally. Yes. After a long road full of potholes and detours and several recalibrations on its GPS, it is finally there: the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"After losing to Chicago (in the final), that's the first thing you think of," Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said. "You want to start again. You want to get back to where you were, and it's a long 82-game schedule. Now we've gotten back to that point."

Tonight, the Lightning's quest for a Cup begins the same place it started a year ago, with a first-round date against the pesky Detroit Red Wings.

But this time, there are differences. Specifically, there are absences.

Tampa Bay is missing two of its top players in leading goal scorer Steven Stamkos and steady defenseman Anton Stralman. Several other stars — Victor Hedman, Ryan Callahan, Tyler Johnson and top point producer Nikita Kucherov — are banged up.

It might be missing its top players. It might be lacking a bit of confidence. It might be missing the offensive punch that ignited last season's success. But the Lightning hopes to flip a switch, erasing a regular season full of injuries and inconsistency to become something resembling the team that tore its way through the Eastern Conference a season ago and darn near won the Stanley Cup.

In fact, last year's run through the playoffs might be the single biggest reason — well, other than the expected brilliant play of goalie Ben Bishop — that the Lightning believes it can get back to the final again.

"The experience, we can't put a price tag on that," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "It's something we can reach back on."

So playoff experience is a real thing with real benefits? It's not just something media types and fans like to say when they are trying to sound smart about hockey?

"Yeah, it's a real thing," Callahan said. "There are a lot of things you go through in the playoffs. The ups and the downs, different parts of series. So having experienced that before, having been there before helps you prepare for that."

Last year offered plenty of preparation for this year's Lightning. Tampa Bay was faced with just about every obstacle and circumstance it could last spring. It played several backs-against-the-wall games. It survived a Game 7 against the Red Wings and another on the road against the Rangers. It jumped out to a 3-0 lead on the Canadiens then had to win another road game to close that scary series out in six games.

It had injuries and overtimes, controversy and momentum swings. For a team with little playoff experience a year ago, everything was new. This year, it's hard to imagine any scenario that would be foreign or frightening to the Lightning.

"You see different things happen every playoff series, so you can't prepare for everything," Lightning center Brian Boyle said. "But be ready for anything. … We dealt with all that just the first two rounds last year. Anything can happen. Every year is different. Your only objective is to just win the hockey game."

Can a team that has been so inconsistent, however, find the consistency to put together four great games out of seven? Then do that again? And again? And again?

Game 1 might give a hint.

Not to say the Lightning was bored with the regular season or took making the playoffs for granted, but you did get the sense that the only goal this season was to the win the Cup, and that the true starting gun for the race to the Cup is the start of the playoffs.

"As bitter as it was at the end, it was a phenomenal ride and it does make it tough to come back in a couple of months and play," Cooper said, explaining the Lightning's stop-and-stutter season.

Still, the Lightning's gaze, even during lean times when the playoffs seemed iffy, was always to the start of the postseason.

Now, even without Stamkos and Stralman, the Lightning is good enough to beat any team in a seven-game series. But is it good enough to string together four or six weeks of really good hockey?

"Experience is not going to help the fact that we don't have Stamkos or Stralman," Cooper said. "That's just fact, and that's something we have to deal with collectively."

The Lightning was outplayed by Detroit in last year's opening round and was lucky to survive. You would think that without Stamkos and Stralman, the climb to beat Detroit this season is a little steeper.

Still, the Lightning probably can overcome, at least for a short spell, the injuries to beat the Red Wings. Yes, Tampa Bay can win this round. It will win this series, in six games.

It just seems unlikely that it will win a second series.

The good news is we will find out soon. We are finally here. The playoffs.

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