No team left alive will have as long a rest—and no team, perhaps, needs it less—than the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning, who after their 4-0 series clincher in Game 5 against the Islanders, have made it through to the conference finals for the second straight season, and have done it in just 10 games. Not bad for a popular pick to flame out.
It was easy enough to pick against the Lightning. If this time of year is a march of attrition, if the teams that go the furthest tend to be the healthiest, the Lightning had two truly excellent excuses to come up short: their two best players. Two weeks before the regular season, captain and leading scorer Steven Stamkos underwent surgery on a blood clot, and elite defenseman Anton Stralman fractured his leg. The returns of both are very much up in the air. Tampa is still rolling.
“The depth in our organization has been huge,” center Brian Boyle said. “We’ve had situations this year when we’ve had to deal with injuries. … Guys’ role change a little bit and you just go.”
It stars with defenseman Victor Hedman, the second overall pick in the 2009 draft who really had his coming-out party in last year’s playoffs. But this year, he’s on another level, putting his name in the running for this year’s edition of the Claude Giroux Memorial Best Player In The World (In A Given Postseason) Trophy.
Hedman hasn’t missed a beat paired with Braydon Coburn or Matt Carle in place of Stralman, and, often matched up against John Tavares (drafted first overall in 2009), managed to largely shut down the Islanders’ star center. Tavares put up 11 points in his first seven postseason games; he had zero points in his final foul.
But Hedman’s doing it on both ends of the ice now, compensating for the absences of both Stralman and Stamkos, scoring four goals and eight points in this series, including two goals in yesterday’s clincher. It looks as simple as an increased willingness to join in the attack or take a shot, but it’s working. The 25-year-old Swede opened the scoring in Game 5 by jumping up into the circle to thwart a counter-attack, and found himself with the puck, and a little space, and a solid screen, so he let it fly.
Nothing special on Hedman’s second goal—just a lovely drop pass off the boards from Jonathan Drouin to set up his A-plus slapshot. The Lightning power play has looked a little different recently—Drouin’s emergence as a PP quarterback has allowed Hedman, the only blueliner on that unit, to look for space and shots, and he’s capitalized.
“You don’t move on without having your best players be your best players,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “And I thought (Sunday) was pretty indicative of what Victor Hedman has done for us.”
Or, you know, this:
When asked what is the most impressive quality about Hedman, Bishop quickly joked, “His looks.”
It’s a team effort, of course. Drouin, who went through a messy season including a trade request, a demotion, and a holdout, isn’t playing like a 21-year-old. Nikita Kucherov, building on his emergence with the Triplets line that had so much success last spring, leads the team in playoff goals with nine. (Tyler Johnson leads the team with nine assists.) Ben Bishop is second among goaltenders still alive in save percentage and goals allowed. And the Lightning are as deep as anyone at both ends, often dressing seven D-men and trusting defensive-minded forwards like Ondrej Palat and Valtteri Filppula to keep things calm no matter which lines or pairings are on the ice. If you were to build a Cup contender from scratch, seeking that tricky balance of speed and physicality, youth and experience, and two-way players up and down the bench, it’d look an awful lot like these Lightning. Imagine this team with Stamkos and Stralman back.
They may not be back, though. And the Lightning still face some skepticism, based on their relatively easy path to the conference finals, having avoided any of the East’s favorites thus far. That’ll end now, whether they face Pittsburgh or Washington. Tampa will be slight underdogs in that series. But they’re an even deeper, more polished team than the one that came within two wins of a Stanley Cup a year ago. The league is wide open, and while every other team is beating up on each other, the Lightning haven’t even been bruised.