The stage was set. As if game seven didn’t have enough drama, Lightning center Steven Stamkos made his return playing 11:55 TOI in his first game in exactly eight weeks. The (Bryan) Rust was obviously there. Maybe it was the last time we see Stamkos playing for the Tampa Bay Lightning, maybe it was only the beginning. But there is no doubt in my mind the Lightning’s time as a dominant NHL team is going to be there for a long time.
As you could see last night, neither time wanted to give an inch and often times they didn’t. Andrei Vasilevskiy played one of the best performances I’ve seen from a rookie goalie, maybe better than Matt Murray did. He allowed three goals in every game except for games 1 & 7, but he faced a very high volume of shots every night. You’ve gotta give it to him.
Tampa Bay is almost a carbon copy of the Penguins lineup except with a lot more gritty, skilled guys. I honestly thought if Tampa were to beat us, that’s what was going to make the difference. It got them to game seven but no further. But Tampa’s speed and skilled depth through all four lines is exactly what the Pens have. Players like Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan, J.T. Brown, and Valterri Filppula were goes who made some contributions, whether noticed or unnoticed.
Boyle is a freak. He’s a very tall, physical player. He was a taller version of our Max Lapierre from last season’s playoffs. He got under your skin and could score you a big time goal (or two as he did in game six). Callahan was a physical force that really pissed Penguins fans off with some questionable hits and played a pivotal role in keeping the Pens player play off the scoreboard as often as they would’ve liked. Brown didn’t have a standout series and only played 4:26 TOI in game seven. But he was a force such as Callahan that had to get under everyone’s skin. Filppula was a huge face off asset for the Lightning and won big draws when he was needed. There’s a lot of mid line depth of the team.
Oh, and the Lightning have a couple stud standout young players, too. Guys like Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, and Jonathon Drouin made a huge impact on this series and the regualr season going as far as it did.
Just as the Pens had a standout series from a young defenseman in Brian Dumoulin, the Lightning found that Slater Koekkoek is a pretty quick defender with the hands to score some big time goals in a few years. Just as the Pens found one of their acquisitions in Trevor Daley to be the anchor of their defense corps, the Lightning found out this season that Anton Stralman might be one of the most underrated defenseman in the NHL.
Stralman doesn’t get a ton of recognition, although this series his return got a ton, he battled back from a broken leg to play standout defense and scored a goal when he returned in game one. He was able to be an offensive standout and defensive anchor and help get the Lightning get to the Conference Finals for a second straight year.
But something that is the most similar to me is the coaches, Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper and Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan.
Without either of those guys, neither Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh even make the playoffs. At the end of December the team’s were 12th and 13th respectively and pretty much written off. Both teams hit the ground running when the calendar turned to 2016. They went on crazy stretches and clinched playoff births with a few games still at hand in the regualr season.
So no matter what happens this offseason for Tampa Bay, be it Stamkos deciding to “Bolt” for another team, Bishop being relegated to backup Vasilevskiy next season, or Steve Yzerman deciding he’s still got enough left in the tank to play one more season, the Lightning should strike all of you as a contender again next season.