Saturday, November 18, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning refuses to listen to doubters

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TAMPA — There's no reason to believe the Lightning has much of a chance in these Stanley Cup playoffs.

It is starting a backup goalie who has looked every bit like a backup goalie for most of the season.

It is starting a bunch of rookies whose only NHL playoff experience involves a couch and a remote control.

Even the guys who have been to the playoffs — veterans such as Steven Stamkos and Teddy Purcell and Eric Brewer and Victor Hedman — haven't been there in a few years.

So why would you believe this team is ready to do some damage and make a run at the Stanley Cup? What about any of this makes you think the Lightning can even get out of the first round against the Canadiens?

The Lightning is the longest of long shots, but there is one thing that makes you pause before completely writing it off:

The Lightning has been proving everyone wrong all season long.

Injuries. Trades. More injuries. Doesn't matter.

The Lightning has driven so fast this season that it hasn't even noticed the potholes it has run over.

"From Day 1 we truly believed we could be a playoff team,'' coach Jon Cooper said.

Maybe Cooper and his team believed. Few others did.

With a room full of kids, no established goalie and just a couple of proven goal scorers, the Lightning seemed like a bunch of parts waiting to be built into a contender. Typically, such construction takes a year or two.

"I knew that they could do it,'' Cooper said. "Really, the unknown for us was in goal. I kind of liked where our team was at. Our X factor was in net, and that was answered right away (with Ben Bishop).

"And we felt pretty good that we could make some noise.''

It started off that way. Bishop evolved into a star. The Lightning snuck up on people, surprised opponents, took advantage of those looking past Tampa Bay to the next game.

"We didn't have much street credibility,'' Cooper said.

Win followed win. The Lightning racked up the points, enough to hang with the Bruins atop the Atlantic Division.

That good vibe lasted until, Cooper said, the "instant right before Stamkos went into the post.''

That was Nov. 11 when Stamkos crashed into a goal post in Boston and snapped his right leg.

Season over, right?

"Even when Stamkos went down,'' Cooper said, "we felt pretty confident as a group that we could get things done.''

And so they did. They got things done.

Win followed win. Tampa Bay continued to throw points on the pile.

The Olympic break came and went.

Ryan Callahan came. Captain Marty St. Louis went. The controversial blockbuster trade did nothing to slow the Lightning. Stamkos returned.

Win followed win. Soon, a playoff spot was clinched.

When Bishop went down last week with an elbow injury, again the season appeared headed for a ditch.

Backup Anders Lindback, with his lousy goals-against average and even lousier save percentage, came off the bench.

Win followed win. Soon, home-ice advantage for the first round was secured.

And so the Lightning opens up the postseason at home tonight against Montreal at the Tampa Bay Times Forum with a coach new to the NHL playoffs.

"I'm a rookie to the NHL, but I'm not a rookie coach,'' Cooper said. "And I've been a part of teams that have played into June in the past few years (in the AHL) and been with those guys right in the room next door. We've kind of been down this road together.''

In all likelihood, the road is about to end. At least for this season.

Here's why:

Lindback has been superb, but nothing has gone wrong for him since he replaced Bishop. If he gives up a soft goal — and he's bound to at some point — it could send him and the Lightning into a funk. Let's just see how he and his teammates handle the adversity that surely will be a part of this opening-round series.

Stamkos is the best pure goal scorer in hockey, but Montreal is going to pay extra attention to him. Someone — like Sean Bergenheim and his nine goals back in the 2011 playoff run — needs to step up and become a surprise scorer. Unless Purcell snaps out of a seasonlong slump, it's hard to guess who that surprise scorer might be.

And talk all you want about how terrific the Lightning rookies have been, this is not the regular season, and these are not the American Hockey League playoffs. It's not realistic to expect instant Stanley Cup playoff success. Even Lightning legends such as St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Brad Richards had to lose in the playoffs before figuring out how to win.

Can the Lightning beat the Canadiens in a seven-game series? Sure.

Will it? I don't think so. Prediction: Montreal in six.

But don't expect the Lightning to listen to me. It hasn't listened to the doubters all season long.

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