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Lightning revels in mixture of youth, experience

Lightning center Brian Boyle beats Red Wings goalie Petr Mrazek to score in Game 1; in Game 2, Tampa Bay chased Mrazek.
Lightning center Brian Boyle beats Red Wings goalie Petr Mrazek to score in Game 1; in Game 2, Tampa Bay chased Mrazek.
Published Apr. 20, 2015

TAMPA — Captain Steven Stamkos said it would have been easy for the Lightning to "feel sorry for ourselves" after a Game 1 loss.

Last season, Tampa Bay might have.

But this is a different group, with a different vibe. The veterans brought in last summer, from Brian Boyle to Brenden Morrow to Anton Stralman, have combined with the youthful exuberance of several second-year players to give the Lightning an ideal mix for playoff time.

There's an even keel, a quiet confidence among the group. And now there's an even series, the Lightning and Red Wings tied 1-1 heading to Detroit for Tuesday's Game 3.

"We're just a year grayer, that's what we are," coach Jon Cooper said. "We dipped our toes in the water last year, now we feel like we can jump right into the lake."

After getting swept in the first round last season by Montreal, with many Lightning rookies admittedly freaked out by their first taste of playoff hockey, general manager Steve Yzerman went to work retooling his roster.

Tampa Bay focused on defensemen, acquiring veteran Jason Garrison in late June and signing Stralman the first day of free agency.

Then came forward Boyle, who like Stralman was part of the Rangers' run to the Stanley Cup final last season, and wing Brenden Morrow, 36, the former Stars captain. The Lightning already had Matt Carle, former Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, its only Cup-winning player in Valtteri Filppula. Then during the season Braydon Coburn arrived at the trade deadline. Six players have made a Cup final. Yzerman said adding experience was just a bonus.

"It just helps to have some guys around that can kind of calm the waters," says Yzerman, a three-time Cup winner in Detroit.

As Cooper says, this is their "time to shine."

"Experience matters so much, and you can't underestimate that," Cooper said. "These guys have been through everything, it's so intense, heightened every moment, to bring in a bunch of guys who have been there before, it changes the complexion of who we are."

Center Tyler Johnson, 24, said the veterans bring a "calming influence," always knowing what to say in the room or on the bench. Defenseman Andrej Sustr, 24, said they also show it in actions, whether it's a big hit or a big goal. Morrow said the key is getting the pulse of the room. If there's a need to lighten the mood, you find a way. If it's too loose, "you make sure to push the right buttons," he said.

"I think you need that youthful enthusiasm and also veterans that know the game a little bit more," Stralman said. "They can make sure the team doesn't float away somewhere, where they don't belong, make sure they stay into their structure. I think a mix is what you want."

Callahan, who joined the team at last year's deadline, can sense a significant change from last year's playoff team. Tampa Bay knew if it played its game Saturday, it would get back into the series with a win. But it said it's not getting carried away after a convincing 5-1 win.

"That's what the playoffs is all about, finding that balance," Stamkos said. "Not getting too low after a loss and not thinking you're champions after you win one game. This ability to stay even-keeled, that's huge come playoff time."

Said Callahan: "The playoffs are so much energy and emotion swings, the team that can handle the momentum swings are the teams that do well."

Boyle said considering the Lightning's youth — 13 players are 25 or younger — he's impressed with their mental makeup, a credit to the organization's scouting and development staff.

"For the most part, everybody on this team gets it," Boyle said. "These guys are wise … mature beyond their years."

Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, 34, won a Cup in 2008 on a veteran-laden team that included Chris Osgood, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios and Kris Draper. But they also had a 23-year-old Filppula, 24-year-old Jiri Hudler and 27-year-old Zetterberg.

"I think the mix is more important," Zetterberg said. "That you have the older guys that have been through it and younger guys that are there for the first time, second time around. It's nice to have that mix. If you look at teams that have won the Cup lately, they had that mix."

And so does the Lightning.

Contact Joe Smith at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.