TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning were constantly reminded this post-season of what they hadn’t done.
This version of the Lightning hadn’t won a playoff game, let alone a series, knew nothing about Game 7 pressure and ventured into uncharted territory in the conference final.
Along the way, the young Lightning became the first team since 1998 to reach the Stanley Cup final after being swept the previous year and the first in NHL history to defeat three Original Six teams to get to this point. After already knocking off the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers, they can add another if they beat the Chicago Blackhawks and raise the Cup.
More than history, though, the Lightning picked up valuable lessons over the first three rounds that make them more prepared to take on Chicago, which Steven Stamkos called “the ultimate beast.”
“This is the biggest challenge yet,” Stamkos said Monday after practice at Amalie Arena. “You grow as a team throughout each round, you learn a lot about this group, the adversities we’ve had to overcome, the great players that we’ve played along the way and have overcome.”
Tampa Bay eliminated Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, Montreal’s Carey Price and P.K. Subban and New York’s Henrik Lundqvist and Rick Nash. Blackhawks stars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith await.
Stamkos and said Chicago’s skill level is “second to none,” but the mental hurdle of the Cup final for the Lightning is overcoming the experience gap. Having beaten three teams with more post-season experience helps.
“I think it just gives us confidence and realize that we are a young team, but going against experienced teams that we have to give ourselves a chance,” winger Ryan Callahan said. “Our inexperience is OK sometimes. We’re learning as we go here.”
Coach Jon Cooper said it has been “an unreal journey to watch 23 different souls come together as one” this season. Maybe it’s an even longer process, as defenceman Matt Carle wondered if this run would have even happened had the Lightning not been swept by the Canadiens last year.
But the classroom on the ice for this group began against the Red Wings. After falling behind three times in the series, the Lightning fought through plenty of obstacles to move on.
“There was absolutely no space, no speed,” centre Tyler Johnson said. “I think that kind of taught us how to play. Using that against Montreal, then New York and just kind of doing that moulded us into the team we are right now.”
Plenty motivated against the Montreal team that swept them last year, the Lightning took a stranglehold on the second-round series before losing twice. Their Game 6 domination was evidence they could close out an opponent.
Against the Rangers, the Lightning learned another lesson the hard way when they lost Game 1. Expect that to be a point of emphasis before Game 1 against Chicago on Wednesday.
“You could tell that first game in New York we were kind of seeing what they were going to do,” goaltender Ben Bishop said. “I think we learned a lot that last series and not to do that. So hopefully we can learn from that and not have the same mistake twice.”
Winning Game 7 at Madison Square Garden was more of a statement than a lesson. And it has the Lightning feeling confident going up against the Blackhawks.
“You have to build somewhere and start somewhere and we’re excited about this group,” Stamkos said. “They’ve proven they can win at this time of the year. They’re champions for a reason, so it’s going to be a big mountain for us to climb. But I think everyone in this room is willing to do it.”
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Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press