Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Two players down? Yes, but two playoff foes conquered, too (w/video)

TAMPA — Devastating.

That was the word Lightning coach Jon Cooper used to describe the feeling when his team learned that it would have to go into the playoffs without captain and leading scorer Steven Stamkos and top-flight defenseman Anton Stralman.

But Cooper told his team: "It's not over."

"That kind of became our mantra," he said. "This is not over."

He was right. It was not over.

And it is not over. Not by a long shot. The Lightning's quest for a Stanley Cup continues. Two rounds down. Two to go. Minus two of its best players.

Remarkable.

That's the word best used to describe what this Lightning team is doing. It dispatched the Red Wings in five games in the first round. It then eliminated the Islanders in five games with Sunday's dominating 4-0 victory at Amalie Arena.

Without Stamkos? Without Stralman? Who isn't surprised by this?

"I'm not surprised," Cooper said.

No Stamkos. No Stralman. Who would have believed that?

"We believed that," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "We know we have the guys in this room."

In the room, and on the ice. Name a Lightning player and he contributed.

Hedman had two goals Sunday and helped shut down Islanders star John Tavares. Nikita Kucherov scored his playoff-leading ninth goal. Brian Boyle knocked in his second huge goal of the series.

Jonathan Drouin, back from purgatory, had his eighth assist of the playoffs. Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson continued to stamp their names all over the score sheets. And, of course, there was Ben Bishop, who was spectacular again with his fourth series-clinching shutout in the past two postseasons.

It's like there was never a doubt for the Lightning.

"You can't doubt yourself," forward Ryan Callahan said. "We know the guys we have. Those guys are key guys missing, there's no question you're going to miss them. But guys really stepped up and played well."

So well that Tampa Bay only needed 10 games to get through the first two rounds, three fewer games than last year. You could argue that the opponents this season, so far, have been easier. And the only reason the Lightning is moving on is because of two overtime victories against the Islanders that could have gone the other way.

Still, this performance without Stamkos and Stralman has been stunningly efficient.

"Did I ever think we would get through the second round in 10 games? Not a chance," Cooper said. "Do I really believe that we have a team that could advance? No question. There's a special group in there that has been able to weather the storm."

Many outside the organization didn't give Tampa Bay much of a chance because of Stamkos' blood clot and Stralman's fractured leg. But clearly those inside the organization did.

"I'm not sure there were a lot of people, when we entered the playoffs, checking our box to move on," Cooper said. "I think everybody in that room was checking the box."

So how has the Lightning done it? Start with something you absolutely need come the postseason. Your best players must be your best players. The best players left after Stamkos and Stralman have, indeed, been Tampa Bay's best: Bishop, Kucherov, Hedman, Drouin, Johnson and Killorn.

And everybody else has played lights-out, too. Whether it's overtime heroes Boyle and Jason Garrison. Or gritty forwards Callahan, Ondrej Palat and Valtteri Filppula. Or underrated defenseman such as Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle. Or, geez, you could list the entire team.

"They're a very good hockey team," Islanders forward Matt Martin said. "They were in the Cup final for a reason last year."

Last year's Cup run certainly had something to do with the Lightning's ability to overcome obstacles. But this year's occasionally inconsistent regular season also taught some valuable lessons.

While it's hard to find a time when Tampa Bay was missing two more important players at the same time like Stamkos and Stralman, this is not the first time the Lightning has had to deal with injuries. Johnson and Palat both missed chunks of time, as did Callahan, Cedric Paquette and Garrison.

"The depth in our organization has been huge," Boyle said. "We've had situations this year when we've had to deal with injuries. … Guys' role change a little bit and you just go. Whatever you're called upon to do, you prepare, you do your job."

The job the Lightning has done has been sensational.

Of course, it would be silly to suggest this team is every bit as good without Stamkos and Stralman as with them. But the Lightning doesn't have to be better than a team with Stamkos and Stralman. It just has to be better than the teams it is playing. So far, it has been. Two rounds, 10 games, eight victories, two series wins.

"It's two rounds," Callahan said. "We're not anywhere near where we want to be."

But it is a lot farther than most thought this team would be.

Remarkable.

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