Start a new scrapbook, another Lightning team is making playoff memories

John Romano | It took a while, but by Game 7 against Toronto, the Lightning began to resemble their championship selves.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy celebrates after defeating the Maple Leafs in Game 7 of a first-round playoff series in Toronto on Saturday.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy celebrates after defeating the Maple Leafs in Game 7 of a first-round playoff series in Toronto on Saturday. [ FRANK GUNN | AP ]
Published May 15, 2022|Updated May 15, 2022

They have been chased all season by the memory of past glory.

Not as dominant, not as flashy, not as cocky. No awards, no Presidents’ Trophy, no records. The Lightning were a team caught between what it used to be, and what it still wasn’t.

Until Saturday night. Until Game 7.

They may have a long way to go before their names are etched into eternity, but these guys survived a 2-1 nail-biter in Toronto that made you recall all the best qualities of the 2020 and 2021 teams.

The Lightning reminded the NHL of who they once were Saturday night while simultaneously providing instant memories of their new identity.

So, yes, remember this:

Brayden Point screaming in pain as he crashed into a wall with his right leg twisted awkwardly beneath him. Later, smacking his stick on the ice after realizing he could no longer continue skating.

Then, with Point’s head bowed nearly to his waist, Anthony Cirelli putting an arm around his teammate and whispering encouragement in his ear.

Just as the Lightning did when Steven Stamkos missed nearly the entire 2020 postseason.

“When Pointer got hurt,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper told reporters in Toronto, “it seemed to lock the entire team in.”

Remember this:

After giving up three or more goals in six consecutive games, the Lightning finally played the kind of defensive-minded game that was the trademark of their back-to-back champion teams.

Toronto may have tilted the ice in its favor for most of the game, but the Lightning put a clamp on the lethal Auston Matthews/Mitch Marner combination. Matthews rifled nine shots, missing the mark on two, getting blocked on three and being thwarted by goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy on four.

“You’ve got to play that way,” Stamkos told reporters. “You’ve got to have that ability to just grind it out.”

Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews reacts after losing Game 7.
Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews reacts after losing Game 7. [ FRANK GUNN | Associated Press ]

Remember this:

The core of this team was famously constructed in the drafts of 2007-14 when Stamkos, Hedman, Vasilevskiy, Point, Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat were brought together.

But the Lightning did not become a championship team until Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow were brought in at the trade deadline in 2020 to provide a tougher, grittier identity.

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Sort of like Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel this year.

It was Paul who scored both goals against the Maple Leafs on Saturday night, leading a breakaway with Ross Colton on the first, then grabbing a loose puck and scoring an unassisted goal after Toronto had tied the score in the second period.

“I thought the big thing for us was, (Morgan) Rielly scores, and Paul answers three minutes later,” Cooper said. “So we never gave them a chance to get any momentum going.”

Remember this:

The Conn Smythe typically goes to scorers and goaltenders, but it is the small moments that can turn a series. It is the little plays that never show up in the statistics that win a postseason.

It is Cal Foote taking out David Kampf near the boards, and allowing Paul and Colton to start the odd man rush that became Tampa Bay’s first score. It is Killorn getting the rebound off a Matthews shot and hustling up the ice into Toronto territory where he lost possession, but had Paul trailing behind to grab the puck and stick it in the back of the net.

Not all that dissimilar to Goodrow being the forgotten playmaker on Coleman’s diving goal in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final against Montreal last season.

“It’s the plays that happen around it. Killer on the second one, big hit and the puck comes loose,” Paul said. “Obviously I was the one that ended up putting it in the net, but it was everyone on the ice making the plays happen.”

Most of all, remember this:

History is littered with hockey teams and players who dazzled from October to April, but discovered the game is heavier, the hits are harder and the pressure can be overwhelming in the postseason.

It took Tampa Bay years to learn this. The Lightning averaged 107 points a season from 2014-19, but failed to get past the first round three times and ended up chasing the Stanley Cup from coast to coast.

They finally understood what it took in 2020, then came back in 2021 to do it again.

Those seasons are memories now — and players such as Coleman, Goodrow, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Kevin Shattenkirk, David Savard, Carter Verhaeghe, Luke Schenn and Cedric Paquette are scattered around the NHL — and a new group of players populate the Lightning locker room.

They may have just learned their lesson about what it takes to win in the Stanley Cup playoffs with back-to-back elimination wins by one goal apiece.

They certainly provided their first indelible memories.

“Once you put that Bolts uniform on, you know what we’ve accomplished the last two years,” Stamkos said. “But it really is a new year. And it’s going to be as hard as ever.”

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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