Sunday, February 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning rookies have more to learn

The Lightning has benefited greatly this season from the play of its rookies, and heading into the pivotal final 15 games of the regular season, it has seven on the roster.

As much as the rookies have contributed, they are still learning that the last quarter of an NHL season, in terms of intensity and competitiveness, is nothing like the first three quarters.

"Team defenses are a lot stronger," rookie center Tyler Johnson said. "You don't have as much open space. Guys are battling a lot harder in front of the net. Guys are whacking and hacking, making sure you don't get those second and third opportunities."

How Tampa Bay's rookies react to those challenges might play a big part in determining if the team reaches the postseason and how it fares if it gets there.

"We're still trying to adjust a little bit," Johnson said. "Every game is going to be that much harder from here on out, and the playoffs are going to be a whole different ballpark."

As defenseman Sami Salo, 39, said, "You have to go through the experience to realize what it takes to get to the playoffs. It's another level."

Is wing J.T. Brown, who on Saturday ended an eight-game pointless streak, struggling with that higher level? How about wing Nikita Kucherov, with one point in his past 10 games? And wing Richard Panik, who has zero points in four games after being recalled from AHL Syracuse?

"I can't say enough about how hard these guys have worked," coach Jon Cooper said generally of his first-year players.

"But you're looking at 21-, 22-, 23-year-olds who haven't been through not just the physical grind but the highs and lows of everything that goes into preparing for a game in the NHL."

Tampa Bay's rookies know what it means to amp up for late-season games because of their AHL Calder Cup championship run with Norfolk in 2011-12 and getting to the final last season with Syracuse.

And players such as Johnson and left wing Ondrej Palat (because of the injury to Steven Stamkos and the trade of Marty St. Louis) and defenseman Radko Gudas (because of the top-four minutes he has played) have gained valuable experience.

"So as far as being in situations and what we have to do," Johnson said, "I think we've pretty much all been there."

But in the NHL, it's not the same as done that.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]

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