TAMPA — There are no secrets when it comes to the Stanley Cup playoffs, just truths.
Every team has seen the Lightning play. Every team knows what the game plan is when it steps on the ice. Every team is prepped on exactly what to expect for the next 60 minutes.
And yet it hasn’t mattered. Not for two-plus postseasons.
The Lightning have gone 40-16 in the playoffs since 2020, giving them a .716 winning percentage. No team has matched that level of domination over a three-year span since Wayne Gretzky and Edmonton were dazzling the world in the late 1980s.
Obviously, great players are the key ingredient. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov are among the very best at their positions in the NHL.
But talent is not enough, as the Lightning learned in 2019 when they were swept by Columbus in the first round. There is a mindset, a trust, a focus, a confidence, a commitment. There is a defense-first, risk-averse style of play the Lightning refer to as their recipe.
You don’t see it in October, and you don’t see it in January. You didn’t even see it early in the first-round series against Toronto this year.
But when the Lightning needed it in Game 6 against the Maple Leafs, it was there. And since blowing a 2-0 lead in the second period of that game, the Lightning have outscored the opposition 17-4 and won six consecutive games.
“It’s taken a few years to find out what has worked for our group and what is acceptable and what is not,” coach Jon Cooper said. “Accountability is a big thing. … The players know exactly what they can and can’t do. And when something does go awry, they fix it right away. And with the new guys that come in? That core group that’s been here, they just don’t let that stuff slide.
“It becomes part of your DNA, the way you play. And over the last few years, playoff hockey has become part of our DNA.”
That’s not just a slogan or a sound bite. It’s at the heart of what has made this team so special. Tampa Bay has a better winning percentage in the postseason the past three years than in the regular season.
Think of what that means. It’s not like it’s a one-year fluke with a team that got hot in the playoffs. Over the course of hundreds of games, the Lightning have had more success when the pressure is at its peak and the competition is among the best in the NHL.
That speaks to how the Lightning raise their level of play in May and June. Of course, some might argue that it’s an indictment of not caring as much during the regular season.
The Lightning don’t see it that way. There is a physical cost to the way they play in the postseason, and it’s simply not sustainable over the course of an 82-game regular season.
Defensemen are putting their bodies in front of shots, averaging 30 percent more blocks per game than in the regular season. The number of hits from Lightning players has gone from 25.5 per game to 38.3.
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“At this time of the year, you’ve got guys with bruises or battered body parts and they’re continuing to throw (themselves) in front of shots,” said assistant coach Jeff Halpern. “I think in any defensive system, it comes down to something like that. It’s tough to do for 82 games. The guys understand at playoff time every missed block is a big chance. This group has shown they’re willing to do that.”
The inference is that any team can follow this same formula or recipe. The question is the level of commitment. Are your forwards willing to sacrifice their scoring because they’re not taking the kind of risks that lead to odd-man rushes? Are your stars willing to block shots? Are you disciplined enough to stay out of critical penalty-kill situations? Is there trust from the first line to the fourth?
The Lightning were not necessarily wedded to that philosophy a month ago, but their commitment to postseason hockey has been evident to anyone paying attention the past few years.
“You saw at times during the regular season when we were going through some of our funks and we were talking about defending too much and we’re in our zone too much,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “But for whatever reason, we’ve had that ability to kind of flip that switch.
“I know lots of teams talk about it, and you’re like, ‘Well, no, you’ve got to be playing the right way going into the playoffs. You just can’t flip the switch.’ But when you have the goalie we have playing back there and you have the confidence and experience our group has … it kind of happened halfway through that Toronto series.”
It’s not a secret. It’s not a surprise. It’s just the truth of how the Lightning play in the postseason.
And for the last three years, no one has been able to stop them.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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