Thursday, January 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning is playing it cool and thriving in playoffs (w/video)

TAMPA — Think back to a year ago.

The Lightning played the Red Wings in the first round of the NHL playoffs and something didn't feel quite right. You could sense it. There was an uneasiness surrounding the team. Maybe it was nerves, maybe it was fear of the unknown.

The players seemed on edge. Coaches were a bit salty. On a couple of occasions, the locker room felt like a dentist's waiting room full of root-canal patients.

Yes, the Lightning won the series. But just barely.

This time around, the feel couldn't be more different and, perhaps, that's a big reason why the Lightning has a two games to none strangle­hold in its opening-round playoff series against the same Red Wings after Friday night's gutsy 5-2 victory at Amalie Arena.

This team and this series just feels different. It looks different, too.

That's good news for Tampa Bay.

"We're a different group because we ended up going to the finals last year," veteran forward Ryan Callahan said. "That builds that confidence and that assurance in the group. It's showing."

This group certainly is sure of itself, even though the walls started crumbling around them before the postseason even began. The Lightning lost defenseman Anton Stralman to a fractured leg, then captain and All-Star Steven Stamkos to blood clots.

Yet, the Lightning hasn't panicked. It hasn't bellyached. It hasn't searched for excuses for why it might get knocked out early in these playoffs.

Instead, it has rolled up the sleeves of its hockey sweaters and gone to work on getting back to the Stanley Cup final.

Certainly, there's a long way to go to do that. Tampa Bay is a mere two games into the most grueling postseason in all of sports. And, really, all it has done so far is hold serve by winning the two games it's supposed to win. Look for a better Detroit team back in Motown for Games 3 and 4.

"We've accomplished nothing," center Brian Boyle said.

But there's a quiet confidence with this bunch, a calmness that wasn't there last spring when these two teams met in the postseason. Even the Lightning team that was pretty much at full strength a year ago showed a touch of nervousness.

Not this time around.

Maybe it's lowered expectations. Or maybe it's because Tampa Bay eventually came within two games of winning the Stanley Cup last season. Whatever the case, this looks like a group that just knows it's going to find a way to win.

"When we played (the Red Wings) last year, we hadn't played Round 2, Round 3 and Round 4," coach Jon Cooper said, "so we're probably a little different group handling certain things this time."

For example, in Game 1 on Wednesday, the Lightning blew an early lead and fell behind. A team lacking poise easily would have been shaken, but this Lightning team buckled down and tied the score.

Then, even after an apparent winning goal was waved off, it went out and scored another.

Does that sound like a nervous team to you?

Then there was Friday night's Game 2. Despite the pressure to continue holding serve at home, the Lightning played with the same patience and coolness as Game 1, with the same resolve to overcome any hurdle.

Twice it took one-goal leads, and twice it let those leads slip away. Perhaps a fragile team lets those blown leads get in its head and shake its confidence.

Not Tampa Bay. It kept fighting, kept battling, kept focusing on the prize.

"I really liked the way we have responded," Cooper said.

Eventually, someone leaps over the bench and plays hero. That hero, no surprise, was Tyler Johnson. The guy who destroyed the Red Wings in last season's playoffs went to work on bulldozing the Red Wings again this year. He scored twice in the third period to break a 2-2 tie and give Tampa Bay the victory.

Meantime, other players continued to show their playoff poise.

Nikita Kucherov scored again, looking just like Stamkos, by ripping a one-timer on the power play to give Tampa Bay the first goal of the game.

Jonathan Drouin, looking just like a third overall pick and nothing like the kid who quit the team in a huff when he was shipped to the minors earlier this season, played brilliantly. He got under the skin of the Red Wings and onto the score sheet by setting up Boyle's nifty goal.

Speaking of which, Boyle and fellow veterans such as Callahan, Alex Killorn, Jason Garrison, Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn continued to look as if they were born to play in the playoffs.

Defenseman Victor Hedman continued to play like a monster and has been the best player for both teams so far.

And backstopping the whole thing was goalie Ben Bishop, who, come to think of it, might be the biggest reason why the Lightning feels so calm, cool and collected.

Add it all up and you never had a sense the Lightning was going to lose either of the first two games.

There's still a long way to go for Tampa Bay. But it has to like its chances now, being up 2-0.

Come to think of it, that's another reason to feel confident.

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