The Lightning have been here before. No, they haven’t played the Stanley Cup final in an Edmonton bubble against the Stars, but nine of their players have played for hockey’s biggest trophy together before.
In 2015, the Lightning were something of a young upstart that made an unexpected run to the Cup final, losing to the Blackhawks. None of the nine still together were yet 30 in that 2015 run: Braydon Coburn, Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Cedric Paquette, Steven Stamkos and Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Vasilevskiy was a 20-year-old rookie goalie who had played only 16 regular-season games when Ben Bishop got hurt in the Cup final and he had to step in. Forwards Kucherov and Paquette also were just starting their careers.
Now, including the 2015 playoffs, the nine have been to at least the Eastern Conference final four times in six years (and missed the postseason one of those years).
Vasilevskiy is now a 26-year-old three-year full-time starter and a Vezina Trophy finalist in each of them, winning last season.
“Of course, I have more experience now,” he said. “I was a rookie five years ago. Obviously, now I’ve grown up, and I’m a big boy now.”
Defenseman Coburn is an elder statesman at 35. Defenseman Hedman and forwards Stamkos, Johnson and Killorn have hit 30 or will by year’s end.
In 2015, Hedman was just starting to establish himself as a leading defenseman in the league. Now, he’s a perennial Norris Trophy finalist (a finalist for the fourth straight time this season, winning in 2017-18) and is scoring in the postseason like no one has seen from a defenseman in more than 25 years.
Kucherov broke onto the league stage in that 2015 playoff run. He had had a good sophomore season but wasn’t quite a star. Then he averaged nearly a point per game in the playoffs, as he has in every appearance since.
“It’s just the overall experience that guys have,” NBC Sports analyst Brian Boucher said. “Guys like Killorn, Palat, these guys are now five years later into their career, and that experience, all that stuff, you’ve got to go through it.”
The Lightning aren’t taking this opportunity lightly.
“We’ve been there once (to the Cup final), and it took us five years to get back,” Hedman said. “The experience we had in that and up until this point in between helped us a lot mentally. Going through playoff runs has helped us a lot with what to expect and how to have that even-keel feeling in the locker room.”
Jon Cooper, who was in his second full year as coach in 2015, said more of the same. Experience going deep in the playoffs teaches a team how to manage emotions, how to maintain just enough of the excitement to power through the grind while remaining steady.
To Julien BriseBois, who was assistant general manager in 2015 and now is in his second year at the head of the hockey operations department, the experience teaches a team the difficulty of winning the Cup so it knows what’s ahead the next time.
“It’s hard to win one playoff game, let alone to win four playoff games, and you have to do that four times to lift the Cup,” he said. “Obviously, you need a lot of good players, you need resiliency, you need breaks.”
They’ve all learned lessons, and the organization has added pieces.
Center Brayden Point, drafted in 2014, was a prospect in juniors in 2015; now he’s one of the biggest pieces powering the forwards. He centers the “enhanced” version of the 2015 Triplets line of Palat, Johnson and Kucherov, to use a word from Boucher.
In 2015, the Triplets line was all the rage. This year, the Lightning have brought out Triplets 2.0 with Point between Kucherov and Palat.
“Tyler Johnson is a good player,” Boucher said, “but I think Brayden Point is a world-class player.”
Boucher, who has worked all the Lightning’s playoff games since the conference final, sees “snarl” from the third line of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow; added talent and leadership on the back end from Ryan McDonagh; and a boost of excitement from defenseman Zach Bogosian, a 30-year-old 12-year veteran in the playoffs for the first time.
“Overall, this is a much more complete team, much more experienced team,” Boucher said, “and they’ve had some disappointments. And (with) those disappointments, sometimes you’ve got to take a step back to take two steps forward, and I think that’s why this team is in a lot of ways better than the 2015 team that lost to Chicago.”
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @dianacnearhos.