They have scoring champions, all-stars and a player with goals in eight of his last nine games.
And yet the reason the Tampa Bay Lightning are most bullish on their chances at a second straight Stanley Cup is the dwindling number under their “goals against” column.
On Thursday the Lightning kept their cool inside the hothouse at Nassau Coliseum, drawing the line between passive and pursuing with a clinical 2-1 victory over the New York Islanders to establish a 2-1 lead in their semifinal series.
This should be required viewing for every upstart organization with designs on breaking through. The Lightning have been beating teams with their skill for years and more recently added the guile necessary to consistently survive tight games like this one on Long Island.
“This group knows to flip that switch when the time comes,” said captain Steven Stamkos. “I think we’ve proved that in the past, we’ve proved it again here in the playoffs. It’s a battle each and every night.
“The further you go, the tougher the task is and we knew they were going to push. They had a good push.”
And still, the Islanders only put one puck behind Andrei Vasilevskiy, named the NHL’s top goaltender earlier in the day in a poll of nearly 500 current players.
This was more than a goaltending performance, though. The Lightning have morphed into road warriors. They are 6-1 in these playoffs with just 12 goals against, thriving in the hostile atmospheres that were missing during last year’s championship run inside the NHL bubble.
Inside the cackling Coliseum, they really went to work after Brayden Point put them ahead in the dying seconds of the second period by sweeping in his playoff-leading 11th goal after being cross-checked to the ice.
That made it 2-1 and ensured any remaining offensive forays would only come in transition after turnovers.
While Tampa may initially have retreated a tad too much, rhey didn’t allow a shot on goal in the final 5:49 of play.
“We wanted to make sure they had to come 200 feet every time they rushed up the ice,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “I thought our last five minutes were clinical. It was great the way they played.”
They had to finish it off without defencemen Jan Rutta and Erik Cernak, both of whom were nursing injuries not expected to keep them out of Saturday’s game. Victor Hedman played more than four of the last five minutes.
It’s not the kind of performance most would freely associate with the Lightning — not with Nikita Kucherov filling highlight reels, Point scoring every night and a lineup featuring Hedman, Stamkos and more.
Yet it was a shift in this direction that laid the foundation for last year’s championship breakthrough and has them now favoured to go back to back. The Islanders will have to beat Tampa in two consecutive games to win this series and no playoff opponent has managed to accomplish that since the 2019 sweep by Columbus that prompted some serious soul-searching by the Lightning.
“You have to have the mental makeup to understand what it takes to win and that it’s not how many you put in the net, it’s how many you keep out,” Cooper explained earlier this week. “[Last year] that started to click with our guys understanding that we’re not going to be able to score our way out of games all the time, definitely not score your way to a championship. We have to defend our way to a championship and that’s what clicked with the guys and that’s what we’re still doing.”
The Lightning have a firm understanding of who they are and what they need to do. This is their fifth trip to the Final Four in the last seven years, after all, and there’s been no discernible slip in their desire to reach the summit.
They’ve had an answer for every Islanders push so far. There was the rebound from a sluggish opening game and on Thursday night there was a response to Cal Clutterbuck’s 1-1 goal that went in off Cernak’s skate.
The margins are small in a 2-1 series, but the Lightning seem to be seizing some control.
“I think it just goes to show the maturity of the group that we have,” said Stamkos. “We just kind of rise to the occasion.”