Saturday, February 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Playoff lessons will help Lightning in future

MONTREAL — All it might have taken for Lightning defenseman Mark Barberio to prevent the Canadiens' first goal Tuesday in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal was a peek over his shoulder.

Then Barberio might have seen Montreal's Danny Briere waiting to fill the spot in front of the Tampa Bay net Barberio had vacated when he went after Daniel Weise behind the goal line.

Weise passed the puck to Briere, goaltender Anders Lindback had no chance and the Lightning was down 1-0 2:24 into the game.

"I've got to be more aware, take a look over my shoulder," Barberio, a rookie playing his second Stanley Cup playoff game, said after Montreal swept the best-of-seven series with a 4-3 victory at the Bell Centre .

It was one of many lessons the Lightning learned during a playoff that was like higher education for the postseason's youngest team.

With an average age of 26.5, Tampa Bay had 10 rookies and 12 players overall make their NHL playoff debuts.

The Canadiens, with an average age of 29.7 (oldest in the playoffs), had only two playoff newbies, meaning the team had much more institutional postseason knowledge on which to draw.

Knowledge the Lightning has gained for the future.

"You need to be in these situations to understand the atmosphere, to understand the magnitude of every play," coach Jon Cooper said.

"I compare it to getting your driver's license. You (take) your license (exam) and you get an 'A' and you're, like, 'This is awesome. I'm going to jump behind the wheel of a car.' But unless you drive it, you're not really a good driver. You may have passed the test, but you need the experience behind the wheel. It's kind of what's gone on here."

It is an interesting take because leading up to the series, Cooper was adamant the players who won the AHL Calder Cup title in 2012 with Norfolk and went to the final last season with Syracuse had a good handle on what playoff pressure is all about.

But it was evident watching the Canadiens play with more structure — their forecheck and neutral-zone defense limited Tampa Bay's speed — intensity and crispness, they were more comfortable within the postseason crucible.

There was little hesitation in their game, even on the fly. They made a decision and executed.

"You can hear all you want about the Stanley Cup playoffs, all the hype about it, but once you're in it, it's a completely different ball game," rookie center Tyler Johnson said. "It was a learning curve for us. Next year we'll come back even harder and more prepared."

It is not all a cliche.

Canadiens coach Michel Therrien, after Tuesday's game, said he lived the Lightning's situation as coach of the "young" 2006-07 Penguins.

That team, after missing the postseason in four previous seasons, entered the playoffs with 105 points and lost in the first round in five games to the Senators. In 2007-08, the Penguins reached the Stanley Cup final.

"The first time we reached the playoffs, the kids were nervous," Therrien said and added of the Lightning, "That organization is going in the right direction. They stick to the plan, have tremendous leadership."

And all of a sudden a lot more experience.

"The guys are learning. The guys are finding out what playoff hockey is all about, and we're getting better," Cooper said. "You just have to be in those situations to understand how to deal with them."

It's not always easy.

"Experiences can be bad or good," said rookie goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis, who with 16 saves on 17 shots was outstanding Tuesday in relief of Lindback. "It's still experience, even if it hurts a little bit."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]

 
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