TAMPA — Steven Stamkos was 21 the last time the Tampa Bay Lightning made the Eastern Conference final. He took a puck in the nose in Game 7. He missed less than six minutes, coming back with a bloody mess behind a metal cage, but the Bolts were eliminated by the Boston Bruins in a 1-0 loss. “Heartbreaking,” he called it then.
He’s 25 now.
In some ways, it feels like it’s been forever. The Bolts missed the playoffs in 2012 and 2013, sinking as low as 14th in the conference. They made the playoffs last year but were swept in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens.
In other ways, though, it’s amazing how fast time has flown. So much has changed. Stamkos and Victor Hedman are the only two players left from that 2011 team, and now the Bolts are in the conference final again.
They avenged last year’s sweep with a 4-1 victory Tuesday night, beating the Canadiens in six games, and will face the New York Rangers or the Washington Capitals. Stamkos thinks they have what it takes to make the Stanley Cup Final this time.
“I believe we can,” Stamkos said. “We have that belief. I mean, look at the guys that we’ve brought in the last couple years. Look at the guys we’ve been able to develop. Sometimes it’s hard to go through that transition. As a player, you want to win every year. But when you’ve got guys who know what they’re doing running the team, it pays off.”
Steve Yzerman took over as the Lightning’s general manager in 2010. He never made too much of his early success. He came from the Detroit Red Wings, where he won three Cups as a player and another as an executive apprentice – and learned about sustained success.
“Obviously we’re thrilled in Year 1 to be where we are,” Yzerman said during the 2011 conference final. “But again, I want to look back in a few years and say, ‘Hey, you know what? We’ve done a real good job. Our team is where we want to be. Our organization is where we want it to be.’ ”
Well, take a look now:
Yzerman inherited Stamkos, the first overall pick in the 2008 draft, and Hedman, the second overall pick in 2009. He inherited some prospects, too.
But he and his staff drafted and signed some others, most notably the members of what became the ‘Triplets’ line – Nikita Kucherov (58th overall, 2011), Ondrej Palat (208th overall, 2011), Tyler Johnson (signed as an undrafted free agent in 2011).
And he made smart moves. He replaced Guy Boucher with Jon Cooper, who had coached the Bolts’ AHL team to the Calder Cup final. He parted with the likes of Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St-Louis, and he brought in guys like Ben Bishop, Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan, Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn, Jason Garrison and Anton Stralman.
“I definitely saw a lot of potential in this group,” said Stralman, who left the Rangers for the Lightning as a free agent last summer and has been an outstanding addition on defense. “It seems like they’ve been taking strides each year, really something that’s well-built from the ground up, and that’s exciting for a hockey player to be a part of. Young group. A lot, a lot of talent.”
The Bolts won 46 games and racked up 101 points in 2013-14, Cooper’s first full season as an NHL coach. Yes, they were swept in the first round of the playoffs. But they were missing their goaltender because of an injury, and they were inexperienced.
They produced the best record in franchise history this season – 50 wins, 108 points – and showed they were a different team in the first two rounds. They fell into 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 series deficits against the Wings but kept coming back. They were outplayed through two periods of Game 7 but found a way to win. They took a 3-0 lead over the Canadiens, lost back-to-back games, then came up with perhaps their best performance of the season to finish them off.
Yzerman, who likes talking about himself almost as much as he likes losing, who knows the job is only half-finished in these playoffs, declined to comment through a spokesman Tuesday night. But as he crept past in the hallway, trying to keep a low profile with the media in the dressing room, his boss was happy to speak.
“Steve’s done a fantastic job,” said Lightning owner Jeff Vinik. “I’m not surprised. We had high expectations when he took over five years ago, and he had a plan, draft well and let guys develop and build around our core and supplement with free agents. He’s done a great job just as planned, and we’re happy to be still playing hockey at the end of May.”
They have a chance to play into mid-June. The ‘Triplets’ are electric. Stamkos is scoring again, with three goals in his last five games after zero in eight. Bishop, shaky on occasion, has been outstanding overall. He outplayed Carey Price in the second round – the same Carey Price who likely will win the Hart and Vezina Trophies – and has a .931 save percentage. This team has skill and speed and depth, and it’s adding something every day.
“It’s impressive to watch this team grow in such a short time we’ve been together,” Cooper said. “It’s just experience after experience after experience. These guys are learning, and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of.”
Whatever happens in the next round, it should be a lot of fun to be a part of – and a lot of fun to watch – for the foreseeable future. The Bolts are winning without even playing Jonathan Drouin, the third overall pick in 2013.
“You see last year they took a big step from the year previous,” Stralman said. “It seems like every year, the more we get to play together, the more the group gets to stay together, this team is going to grow. I think we’ll be a really strong team for the next few years if we can just keep it together.”
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