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Laughter and insults have returned to the Lightning bench. So have wins

John Romano | The trade deadline acquisitions of Matt Dumba and Anthony Duclair has brought a fresh vibe to Tampa Bay just in time for a playoff push.
 
The Lightning have turned their season around with the arrival of Anthony Duclair (10) and Matt Dumba (24) in trades earlier this month. The veterans not only provided needed depth on the ice but also a spark in the locker room with their engaging personalities.
The Lightning have turned their season around with the arrival of Anthony Duclair (10) and Matt Dumba (24) in trades earlier this month. The veterans not only provided needed depth on the ice but also a spark in the locker room with their engaging personalities. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published March 30

TAMPA — Sometimes, even broken teams can use a laugh. A chuckle, a quip, a break from the monotony of earnestness and doubt.

Who knew that was the Lightning? Who realized, underneath the weight of 60-some middling games, Tampa Bay was still a team to be feared?

Three weeks ago, the Lightning were one spot behind Detroit and a few steps ahead of insignificance in the Atlantic Division. They were having their worst regular season since 2017, and viable solutions seemed out of reach for a team that had already traded away much of its future draft capital.

And then? Voila.

General manager Julien BriseBois dealt a third-round pick and a decent prospect for left wing Anthony Duclair. A day later, he got defenseman Matt Dumba for a fifth-round pick. Both players will be free agents in a couple of months, so neither is necessarily a long-term solution.

But they could be instant salvation.

The Lightning went 7-0-1 in their first eight games with Dumba and Duclair going into Saturday night’s showdown with the Islanders. Duclair provided speed and flexibility on Tampa Bay’s top lines. Dumba offered depth and grit on the blue line. But, more than that, they brought personality and noise to a locker room that had too little of both.

“With the exodus of some of our louder voices — you know, Pat Maroon and guys like (Corey) Perry and others that used to bring some energy with them — we were lacking a bit of that,” said coach Jon Cooper. “We have good hockey players here, they’re just a little more reserved than some of the guys we had in the past.

“Dumba has come in, and he’s a real character. He’s also got character. He’s got courage out there on the ice. He’s not afraid to go into the corners, he’s not afraid to lay the check. Both of those guys have come in and given us a spark. Sometimes, it’s not the guys you give up first-rounders for, it’s the guys who fit right. And Julien found good fits.”

Defenseman Matt Dumba (24) has averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time per game since arriving with the Lightning.
Defenseman Matt Dumba (24) has averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time per game since arriving with the Lightning. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]

In retrospect, perhaps that locker room vibe was overlooked with the salary-cap departures in recent seasons. Maybe more than losing Maroon’s 11 minutes of ice time or Perry’s spot on the power play or Alex Killorn’s steady production, the Lightning lost a little of themselves.

That doesn’t mean the players who remained were at fault, but the Lightning were unable to pull themselves out of a funk that seemed to grow exponentially with each setback.

“I think Julien looked at the quality of players we got but also the character and the personality,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “It was no secret that we lost a lot of that with Maroon and Perry and (Pierre-Edouard) Bellemare, (Zach) Bogosian and ‘Killer’ (Killorn). Those are all guys that have been around the league a long time, very well respected, great guys in the room. Some guys just add that element of bringing people together. When you lose some of that, it’s tough. Not everyone has that personality.

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“These two guys certainly have it. Obviously, ‘Dukes’ has been amazing on the ice, and Dumba has that kind of character that keeps everyone loose in the room. Whether it’s before the game, joking around, or before we go on the ice, that little hoopla, yelling, screaming, getting guys pumped up. Things like that can go a long way.”

It’s as if Duclair and Dumba arrived without having to carry the burden of the Lightning’s past success. They arrived from teams (San Jose and Arizona) out of the playoff race and were happy to find themselves in a room with high expectations.

“When we first talked with ‘Coop,’ he said he had heard the kind of character guys we are and he wanted us to bring a little of that to the room,” Dumba said. “At the end of the day, it’s just being ourselves and trying to let everything happen organically and just getting to know the boys a little bit better every day.”

Before getting carried away, the production on the ice is still important. Duclair has slotted in on the first line with Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point and has five goals in eight games, while Dumba has averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time per game since arriving.

Anthony Duclair has slotted in on the first line with Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point and has five goals in eight games.
Anthony Duclair has slotted in on the first line with Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point and has five goals in eight games. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

At the time of the trades, the Lightning were scoring 3.3 goals per game and giving up 3.4 goals. Since then, they’ve averaged 4.5 goals per game while giving up 2.1. And six of the eight teams they’ve played are currently in position for postseason spots.

“We had tough patches throughout the season, but we never stopped believing in here. We have the ability …” Victor Hedman said before pausing, as if on cue, to yell across the room at Duclair and Nick Paul, who were loudly joking around.

“Can you guys be quiet, please?” Hedman said, as the laughter grew even louder. “I can see you in the background. I’m trying to talk here.”

Will the good times and winning streak translate to the postseason? The precedent does exist. The Panthers were 31-27-6 after 64 games last season before hitting their stride and reaching the Stanley Cup final. The Lightning were 33-25-6 at the same point this season.

I reminded Stamkos that I did not believe this team had another long postseason run in it and had suggested ahead of the deadline that a costly trade would be robbing the future for a lost cause.

“It’s a good thing you’re not the GM, right?” Stamkos said, laughing. “No, I mean, it’s natural to think that. But you have to believe as a team and you have to look at what we’ve done in the past however many years. Maybe this is just what we needed. Maybe we needed this atmosphere to get us going.”

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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