During last year’s run to the Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning was knocked for their lack of experience as they lost to the Blackhawks. When you look at them this postseason, it doesn’t appear many people are saying that the experience they gained a year ago will propel them... anywhere.
The concerns are with pretty good reason: There will be questions for any team playing without their star captain and a top defenseman. Despite reaching the halfway point of these playoffs in the least number of games, it seems that whenever there’s discussion surrounding the Eastern Conference Final, the buzz is around the Penguins for all that they’ve done and can do, and the Bolts are like an afterthought.
Take this analysis and prediction piece featured on ESPN. The Lightning is praised for their depth:
"Kucherov’s nine goals is tops in the NHL, but the Lightning feature a balanced attack with 11 goal scorers…
Then knocked in the end for their lack of it:
"… I just don’t see how the Lightning can match the Penguins’ depth even if they can somehow match their speed."
Huh? So, the Lightning's balanced attack is something that doesn't match up with the Penguins' own depth? Hmm, sure.
And then there’s this:
"Bishop might give the Lightning an edge in goal, but it won’t be significant enough to derail a Penguins team on a mission."
Again, say what? The Penguins are on some mission that the Lightning isn't on as well or aware of? The Lightning hasn't been on a mission since that godawful Monday on June 15, 2015? They're just here to twiddle their thumbs while lacking focus toward the end goal, and step aside and let the darling Penguins believe this is somehow their fate? Do you hear that little voice in your head? That's me laughing.
Check out another analysis in the Boston Globe:
"Tampa Bay got lucky in the matchup game. The Lightning booted a flawed Detroit team … The Islanders put up a good fight."
Well, the Rangers had a mess of a team whose problems were consistent through much of the season, and the Capitals were kinda fragile and put too much emphasis on the regular season than the postseason. Like always. The narrative is what you choose to believe and focus on. Next.
There's this underlying sense or feeling that the Lightning will be frazzled and running around the ice unaware of what to do when they're down a goal, down two goals, when they've all been through this once before, with the key word being together. The youngest team in last year's playoffs are practically playoff veterans now. Think about that. That experience of winning five rounds since 2015, and losing in the Stanley Cup Final, cannot be brushed aside or taken lightly, and the media will make you believe that it's the Lightning who must "rise" to the challenge of a conference finals. It's not taking an opponent lightly, it's knowing that the team isn't going to panic at one turn of adversity. Steven Stamkos acknowledged as much this week, when he spoke about last year's Blackhawks:
"They were comfortable being down a goal, knowing that it may not come in the first 10 minutes of the third, may not come in the next nine minutes but it’s gonna come. And you’ve got to have that resiliency and confidence and to me, it looked like we had that. We were fine being down two goals, we weren’t panicking, we weren’t taking chances at the wrong time. Lack of experience was thrown around last year. This year we have it and it’s shown."
The experience that the Lightning has in their arsenal is what sets them apart from the Penguins. Yes, the Penguins do have Stanley Cup winners, but when was that and how many players are left from that team? You can count on one hand.
Yeah, the Penguins are shiny and sparkly, like that old rusty car that’s been in the garage for who knows how long, and your dad finally puts some hard work into it and when it rolls out of the garage, you freaking need sunglasses because it’s that shiny. At one point this season there was a very real concern as to whether the Penguins would even make the playoffs, but the coaching change was the best thing that ever happened to them, and they’ve been winning and winning ever since. It’s also a great storyline to have handfuls of players see success in ways they hadn’t before with their previous teams.
Other than fighting for valuable points and climbing up the standings in the regular season, what real playoff hardships has this version of the Penguins gone through in the first two rounds? Wondering how Matt Murray will hold up? How many games Kris Letang will be suspended? Hoping Phil Kessel isn’t part of yet another team that blows a 3-0 lead in an elimination game? Why Sidney Crosby hasn’t scored?
If you include the last postseason, the Lightning has survived just about every type of scenario you can come up with. But if we’re just focusing on this year's playoffs, they’ve been down in series. They been down in games, fought back and won in overtime. They’re now that team that Stamkos talked about, that doesn’t panic when they’re down in a game. And to think they've done it without their captain and top defenseman is more incredible. Not only does that speak to the team’s depth, but they’ve found a rallying cry. They’re playing for the players who are out. These are the intangibles that you can’t coach or have video meetings about or see on paper.
There is still a ton of hockey to be played but the Lightning is halfway there to the Stanley Cup. The last team that lost in the final only to win it the following year? The Pittsburgh Penguins.
Bolts in 7.
Watch Stamkos' full remarks from Wednesday.