There’s something a little different about this year’s edition of the Tampa Bay Lightning. They still score in bunches, as they’re known to do, and they still play the same style of fast-paced hockey to which the Eastern Conference has been accustomed.
There’s no shortage of big stars on this club — though you might not know it by simply glancing at the playoff standings.
“Somebody showed me the scoring in the playoffs, the scoring leaders, and I don’t even think we have anybody even close to [being] up there,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said during a conversation on Hockey Central at Noon Wednesday. “To get where we are, all the guys are playing well. We just haven’t had one guy every single night stand out, and I think that’s probably what’s been good for us.”
Jake Guentzel (10 goals, 11 assists) of the recently-eliminated Pittsburgh Penguins sits atop the leaderboard, tied with linemate Sidney Crosby (nine goals, 12 assists) with 21 points this post-season, followed by an obvious trio of Boston Bruins rounding out the top five. You’ve got to scroll down to No. 13 for Tampa’s first entry on the list (Nikita Kucherov, 12 points) and then look further down the rankings at No. 23 to find Brayden Point (10 points).
Both players are more than worthy of Cooper’s praise, and he dishes it out in large helpings, even calling Point “arguably our best player in that series [against Boston].”
Steven Stamkos, meanwhile, has managed to be both the biggest star and one of the most under-the-radar guys on the ice at times, while emerging in big moments — take his pair of pivotal Game 4s, for example, against the New Jersey Devils, and then again versus the Bruins when his team needed it most.
And then there’s J.T. Miller, who has successfully been playing his role while adding some much-needed grit to a team known mainly for its elite skill and speed. Therein lies the difference with this club.
Cooper had plenty to say about how the 25-year-old forward has fit in with his new team in Tampa since arriving as part of the blockbuster deadline deal that also saw Ryan McDonagh join the Lightning.
“We were pre-scouting some stuff today and looking at some of the dynamics, the lines — we look at who we’re going to play: Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, and I don’t know if Wilson’s going to play there again or not,” Cooper said about Washington’s possible top line. “It’s very similar to Stamkos, Kucherov and Miller, in a way.”
That’s because, in addition to his two goals — including the go-ahead marker to seal the series for the Lightning over the Bruins on Sunday — and five assists, Miller brings something the Lightning haven’t had much of lately.
“I think he’s what we’ve been lacking, because we’ve had some skill on this team and some speed and we’ve gone far with it. But you look back to … some of these gruelling rounds and these gruelling series and you need those guys that can play heavy and he’s one of those guys that can do it,” Cooper said of Miller.
“Below the dots, in the corners, puck protecting, net-front, all those things that you need, he can do that,” Cooper continued. “He wins those puck battles. He’s one of the few guys that, you go in there against [Zdeno] Chara and he can stand up to him and you’re going to need that in these series. Who’s going to be able to go in on pucks with [Brooks] Orpik? Some of these bigger defenceman? Miller can do it. And the other thing is, he’s got enough skill and hockey sense to play with guys that have elite hockey sense and he’s just been a great fit for those guys.”
We’ll soon see how Miller and his linemates match up against the Washington Capitals, as the series gets underway on Friday.