Early in the second period of Game 2, Tampa Bay Lightning captain Stephen Stamkos moved into Aaron Ekblad’s shooting lane and blocked a slap shot from Florida Panthers defensive man. Limping on his left leg the rest of the rosary, Stamkos tried to block another before getting off the ice.
Stamkos is one of the best offensive players of his generation in the National Hockey League, a future Hall of Famer who scored 481 goals. His group was one of 24 that Lightning scored in their 2-1 win on Thursday which, for the second year in a row, took them to a 2-0 lead in the playoffs against the faster and talented Panthers.
“Unfortunately, that’s just an expectation for our group,” Stamkos said after the match about blocking shots. “And when everyone does that, no matter what the situation is in the game, it’s contagious and the players step up.”
When asked the day before about this culture, Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, “Does it become contagious? He does it because, God forbid, … you see a guy (prohibit a shot) and then you have a chance to do it, you come to the bench and not a place Fun if you’re not willing to do that who-that. So, guys get along in that respect. That’s been history with us for a number of years. It’s kind of built into our culture.”
Fifteen of the 18 skaters in Tampa blocked at least one shot in Game Two. He scored an equal number no less than one hit, and the only player who didn’t, Nikita Kucherov, brilliantly crafted the winning goal through Ross Colton.
Everyone knows how good lightning is. But even after Tampa’s last two Stanley Cup wins, many people don’t appreciate how strong they are.
The prettiest Toronto Maple Leafs, with their no-win young stars (in the playoffs), appeared in the first round. The Panthers with high goals, lost 2-0 in the Eastern Conference semi-finals with Game 3 Sunday in Tampa – puck drop at 1:30PM ET / 10:30AM PT on Sportsnet and SN NOW – that’s being discovered now.
Three years ago, lightning was very similar to leopards and leaves. They were a highly skilled team, and an offensive juggernaut that won the President’s Award with a record 62 wins.
Then the Columbus Blue Jackets swept them into the opening round of the 2019 Stanley Cup, dropping 19 goals in four defeats for the unrelenting John Tortorella side.
Blue-collar players Pat Marron, Blake Coleman, Barkley Goudreau, Luke Sheen and Zach Bogosian were among the players that Lightning brought in the following season in the wake of this playoff disaster. Lightning scored fewer goals and won fewer games, but they did win the Stanley Cup in the Edmonton Bubble in 2020.
With pretty much the same group in the bottom half of the lineup, plus David Savard and growing Colton, Tampa won another Cup last spring.
This season, while the Panthers added more offensive skills with the additions of Sam Reinhart and Claude Giroud, Lightning refilled their workforce by adding Corey Berry, Pierre-Edward Bellemare, Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul, who led the Tampa forwards with 22:59 of ice time on Thursday.
“We know how we have to play,” Stamkos said. “Obviously you’re looking at Toronto and now Florida, which are two of the most dynamic offensive teams. We’re going to have to play hard and play well, defensively to give ourselves a chance. I mean, I know everyone is talking about goals and stuff. But… in the last couple of years, we haven’t It was like we were scoring six, seven, eight goals in one game.We have to rely on playing the right way, and that’s the sacrifice we saw.
“When teams of this level play offensively, only those little mistakes can lead to offensive chances (against). Obviously this group has a lot of experience in the last two years and know what it takes to win at this time of year. It’s not always pretty, but it’s about winning. That’s what I think this group understands.”
Lightning is not particularly good looking.
Certainly, they have star goalkeeper in Andrei Vasilevskiy and two staunch defenders Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh playing behind superb attacking strikers at Kucherov, Stamkos and Brayden Point, whose absence from this streak due to injury hasn’t prevented Tampa from winning.
But look at the rest of Cooper’s lineup and you’ll see Paul, Perry, Colton, Hagel, Bogosian, Bellemare, and old Lightnings Alex Killerne, Anthony Cirelli, Eric Cernak, Ondrej Balat, and Mikhail Sergechev.
No wonder it is so hard to play against Lightning in the playoffs. You wouldn’t want to compete against them in rugby either. Or bales of hay or loads of trucks or whatever.
“You don’t win two cups in a row like this…without a solid locker room, right?” Bellemare said on Saturday. “But one of the things I’ve come to realize is that our game plan doesn’t change. No matter how the game goes, we’re going to stick with it. Last game, were we the better team? I’m not sure. But we stuck with it, with our system. That’s what I learned with this group. As in Round one, it doesn’t matter what position we’re in, you know no one will start cheating in the game.”
“We have a recipe that has worked for us in those last few springs,” Cooper said before game two. “These guys have the ability, when it gets hard and now it’s time to whip up your shoes, they do. But it’s done in a lot of different ways. It’s the play when they don’t have a disc which is really kind of settling in these last two games. But it’s all about commitment.” And that’s what they show.”