You don’t think the Lightning, who had seen a 3-0 series lead cut to 3-2, and faced the prospect of heading back to Montreal if they couldn’t close things out last night, weren’t feeling an absurd amount of pressure? “We were talking about this game like it was Game 7,” Steven Stamkos said.
Stamkos is still just 25 now, but this is his team, as it was always destined to be. And Tampa Bay is back in the Eastern Conference Finals, as everyone expected four years ago when they made it on the backs of their veterans, and one 21-year-old who promised to be one of the better goalscorers this league has ever seen.
Last night’s GWG was Stamkos’s, naturally:
Even in the high-turnover cap era, it’s incredible that just two players remaining from the Lightning’s 2011 conference finals run: Stamkos and Victor Hedman. Those were still the Martin St. Louis/Vincent Lecavalier Lightning, were the end of continuity from the 2004 Cup-winning team.
Since then, GM Steve Yzerman has rebuilt things nearly from the ground up, and slotting in the final pieces over the last two years. Trading for Ryan Callahan and keeping him from hitting free agency. Signing statistical darling Anton Stralman, who remains one of the league’s top defensemen. Landing a potential franchise goalie in Ben Bishop in a steal of a trade with Ottawa.
The team’s second-through-fourth leading scorers this season were the so-called “Triplets” line—Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat—and they’ve dominated these playoffs so far. Johnson scored six goals against the Red Wings in the first round; Kucherov scored six on the Canadiens in the second, including a pair last night.
All three were drafted or signed less than a month after the 2011 Lightning were eliminated, and all three turned out to be unbelievable bargains. Kucherov went late in the second round; Palat in the seventh; Johnson was an undrafted free agent. There’s really no other way to build a successful NHL team these days, not with the salary cap: you simply have to have cheap, young talent to be able to afford the complementary free agent signings. The Lightning’s top four scorers are homegrown. And they’re just now hitting their primes.
“Last year I think we were a young group,” Kucherov said. “I think half the team didn’t play a playoff game, and this year we are more mature and have more confidence.”
The Lightning await the winner of tonight’s Game 7 between the Capitals and Rangers. But even if they can’t get over the conference final hump, this isn’t like 2011. That was the end of an era. This team’s window is opening wide.