TAMPA — They were among the very best in the NHL this season. Threats to score every night, every period, every shift.
Toronto’s Auston Matthews was the first player to score 60 goals in a season in a decade. The Lightning eliminated his Maple Leafs in the first round.
Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau anchored the highest-scoring team the NHL had seen in 25 years. The Lightning eliminated his Panthers in the second round.
New York’s Artemi Panarin was a passing savant with 74 assists in 75 games. The Lightning eliminated his Rangers in the Eastern Conference final.
Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon? Step right up.
If Tampa Bay is to win a third consecutive Stanley Cup, it will not be because the Lightning blow the doors off the Avalanche. The path to victory will be the same as it was in New York, Florida and Toronto. The same as it was in 2021 and 2020.
If Tampa Bay is to be skating toward immortality in the coming days, it will be because the Lightning play defense better than any team they’ve come across.
And that’s a lesson they have followed since 2019 when they were the Greatest Show on Ice, and got thumped from the playoffs by a defensive-minded Columbus team in the first round.
“I go back to us being together for a long time,” coach Jon Cooper said. “There are times when you go through those lumps of sitting here saying, ‘You have a 1-0 or 2-0 lead. Do you want to win the game 8-0? Or do you want to win 2-1? It took us time to figure that out.
“But when we did, this is what happened.”
It really is that simple. The Lightning still had dynamic scorers on offense. They still had Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point. But the players bought into the idea that they were never going to be the last team standing until they prioritized defense over offense in the postseason.
And in a year when the Western Conference has seen scores of 9-6 and 8-6 and 6-5 and 8-2, the Lightning have been grinding out victories like it was 1965.
During these Stanley Cup playoffs, the Lightning have a .500 winning percentage (4-4) in games when they have scored two goals or less. The rest of the NHL has an .097 winning percentage (6-56).
“Trust is the word. We trust every guy that goes over the boards to do his job,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “Whether you score a goal or not, it’s the little things that you do. It’s the defending, it’s the blocked shots, it’s the sacrifice, it’s not complaining about your role. It’s just going out and playing as hard as you can for the next guy that sits beside you in that locker room.
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“And that’s why this group is so special.”
So what, exactly, does it look like on the ice?
It looks like Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn and Brandon Hagel hounding the New York line of Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Frank Vatrano in the final four games of the series.
As much as fans have bemoaned the loss of Tampa Bay’s third line from last season — Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman — this checking line has been instrumental in 2022′s success.
They haven’t been noticed as much because they haven’t been scoring, but they have completely disrupted the game plans of every team coming through Tampa Bay.
Think of Tampa Bay’s philosophy this way:
Cirelli and Killorn have combined for zero even-strength goals in the 2022 playoffs (Cirelli has one shorthanded goal) and yet they have skated more shifts than any other forwards on the roster.
More than anything else, that explains Cooper’s mindset in the postseason. His priority is to stop the other team from scoring, and he’s not the least bit concerned if Cirelli, Killorn and Hagel come up short on the offensive end.
If the Lightning can hold an opponent to two goals or fewer, Cooper has faith that Stamkos, Kucherov, Ondrej Palat or someone else will eventually get him the scoring he needs.
“We have enough skill and talent to score but we focus on our defensive game.” Killorn said. “If we don’t let them score, if we win 2-1, we’re happy with that. We don’t have to win by six goals, or whatever it may be. We want to defend first. And when you defend, you end up getting a lot of scoring chances out of it. So, really happy with the way we’ve progressed in that sense in the playoffs.”
Will it be enough to beat Colorado?
Certainly, there are no guarantees. The Avalanche are averaging an NHL-high 4.64 goals per game in the postseason. The last time a Stanley Cup finalist finished the postseason with a scoring average that high was Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers in 1985.
And if MacKinnon and the Avalanche want to know what to expect in the final, they need only watch the tape of Matthews. And Huberdeau. And Panarin.
It’s no secret what the Lightning are trying to do.
The trick is figuring out how to beat them.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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