TAMPA — When Lightning coach Jon Cooper scanned the locker room during his postgame address Saturday, it didn't take long for him to notice a stark contrast from this time last year.
"There's a different feel in that room about what's coming up," Cooper said. "They've got that 'eye of the tiger' in them. I can see it. I'm looking forward to what's ahead for us."
As the Lightning hosted the Canadiens in last year's first round of the playoffs, the rookie-filled team seemed just happy to be there. Even for veterans, it was Tampa Bay's first playoff appearance since 2011. Some were a bit shell-shocked. The Lightning got swept in six days.
As Tampa Bay prepares to open the playoffs Thursday against the Red Wings at Amalie Arena, captain Steven Stamkos believes Tampa Bay can stick around for a while this year.
"We're ready to make some noise," Stamkos said. "We have to have that belief and have that confidence heading in that we're not satisfied with just being in it. We have that quiet confidence about ourselves. We've been able to handle situations throughout the year and hang with some really good teams in the league. We believe we're one of the best teams in the league, and we're feeling good about ourselves heading in."
As Stamkos says, this is a different team. Last year, Stamkos, recovering from a broken leg, wasn't 100 percent. Goalie Ben Bishop was not available due to a dislocated elbow. Several rookies were in their first postseason. Cooper said everyone knows each other and the system better now. He said last year's playoff experience "went miles" with this group.
"Last year it was an accomplishment to get into the playoffs," defenseman Mark Barberio said. "Montreal came out and kind of stunned us. They had more intensity. I don't know if we were completely ready for that. It was definitely a wakeup call for all of us that experienced it for the first time."
Said wing Alex Killorn: "You were so excited for the playoffs. You don't expect much. You hoped for the best. That's kind of what we did. I don't know if we had that confidence. And this year we expect to win."
The Lightning was expected to win when the season began, with many predicting it would make a deep run in the playoffs. Stamkos knew this season would be tougher — the Lightning would no longer surprise anyone — yet the group lived up to expectations, racking up a club-record 50 wins and 108 points.
Tampa Bay hasn't lost three in a row all season, showing character and resiliency. The complexion of the locker room has changed with veterans such as Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman, who reached the Stanley Cup final last season with the Rangers, and Brenden Morrow.
"This is why we got them," Cooper said. "Their time to shine is coming up now."
The Lightning has learned from its past. It went 3-0-1 in the regular season against Montreal last season, but that mattered little in the playoffs. With Tampa Bay having won three of four this season against Detroit, it approaches these playoffs as if the slate is clean.
"We know that playoffs are a different sport," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "We have to bring our game to the next level with everything — our structure, our compete level.
"Last year, getting swept 4-0, that tells that we need to learn from something. We are very eager to get back into the playoffs and prove last year is only going to happen once."
Marchessault sent down: Center Jonathan Marchessault was reassigned to AHL Syracuse on Sunday.
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.