Lightning's 'contagious' blue-collar approach a winning formula vs. Panthers

Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91), right wing Corey Perry (10) and left wing Ondrej Palat (18) celebrate a goal against the Florida Panthers during the first period of Game 2 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series. (Reinhold Matay/AP)

Early in the second period of Game 2, Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos moved into Aaron Ekblad’s shooting lane and blocked a slap shot from the Florida Panthers defenceman. Hobbling on his left leg the rest of the shift, Stamkos tried to block another before getting off the ice.

Stamkos is one of the best offensive players of his National Hockey League generation, a future Hall of Famer who has scored 481 goals. His block was one of 24 the Lightning recorded in their 2-1 win on Thursday that, for the second straight year, has them up 2-0 in the playoffs against a faster, talented Panthers team.

“Unfortunately, that's just the expectation of our group,” Stamkos said after the game about shot-blocking. “And when everyone's doing it, no matter what the situation is in the game, it's contagious and guys are stepping up.”

Asked the previous day about this culture, Lightning coach Jon Cooper said: “Does it get contagious? It does because, God forbid, you ... watch a guy (block a shot) and then you have a chance to do it, you come to the bench and it's not a fun place to be if you're not willing to do that. So, guys get in line in that regard. That's been the history with us for a number of years. It's kind of built into our culture.”

Fifteen of 18 Tampa skaters blocked at least one shot in Game 2. An equal number recorded at least one hit, and the only skater who did neither, Nikita Kucherov, brilliantly set up the winning goal by Ross Colton.

Everybody knows how good the Lightning are. But even after Tampa won the last two Stanley Cups, a lot of people don’t appreciate how tough they are.

The prettier Toronto Maple Leafs, with their young and winless (in the playoffs) stars, found out in Round 1. The high-scoring Panthers, down 2-0 in the Eastern Conference semi-final with Game 3 Sunday in Tampa – puck-drop is 1:30 p.m. ET / 10:30 a.m. PT on Sportsnet and SN NOW – are finding out now.

Three years ago, the Lightning were a lot like the Panthers and Leafs. They were a super-skilled team, an offensive juggernaut that breezed to the Presidents’ Trophy with a record-tying 62 wins.

Then they were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the opening round of the 2019 Stanley Cup tournament, surrendering 19 goals in four losses to John Tortorella’s relentless, workmanlike team.

The players the Lightning brought in the next season in the wake of this playoff disaster included blue-collar veterans Pat Maroon, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Luke Schenn and Zach Bogosian. The Lightning scored fewer goals and won fewer games, but they won the Stanley Cup in the Edmonton bubble in 2020.

With largely the same group in the bottom half of the lineup, plus David Savard and the developing Colton, Tampa won another Cup last spring.

This season, while the Panthers added even more offensive skill with the additions of Sam Reinhart and Claude Giroux, the Lightning reloaded their workforce by adding Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul, who led Tampa forwards with 22:59 of ice time on Thursday.

“We know how we have to play,” Stamkos said. “Obviously, you look at Toronto and now Florida, two of the most dynamic offensive teams. We're going to have to really buckle down and play well, defensively to give ourselves a chance. I mean, I know everyone talks about the goals and stuff. But ... the last couple of years, it's not like we're scoring six, seven, eight goals a game. We have to rely on playing the right way, and that's the sacrifice that we've seen.

“When you're playing teams of this calibre offensively, it's just those little, tiny mistakes that can lead to offensive chances (against). This group has, obviously, had a lot of experience the past couple years and knowing what it takes to win at this time of the year. It's not always pretty, but it's about wins. And that's what this group, I think, understands.”

The Lightning aren’t especially pretty to look it.

Sure, they have a superstar goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy and stud defencemen Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh playing behind great offensive forwards in Kucherov, Stamkos and Brayden Point, whose absence this series due to injury hasn’t stopped Tampa from winning.

But look at the rest of Cooper’s lineup and you see Paul, Perry, Colton and Hagel, Bogosian and Bellemare, and character Lightning veterans Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, Erik Cernak, Ondrej Palat and Mikhail Sergachev.

No wonder the Lightning are so difficult to play against in the playoffs. You wouldn’t want to compete against them in rugby, either. Or hay-baling or truck-loading or anything.

“You don't win two Cups in a row like that ... without having a locker room that is solid, right?” Bellemare said Saturday. “But one of the things that I've realized is that our game plan doesn't change. Regardless of how the game goes, we're going to stick with it. Last game, were we the better team? I'm not sure. But we stuck with it, with our system. That's what I've learned with this group. Like in the first round, it doesn't matter the situation that we're in, you know that nobody's going to start to cheat the game.”

“We have a recipe that's worked for us these past few springs,” Cooper said before Game 2. “These guys have an ability, when it gets tough and now it's time to dig your heels in, they do it. But it's done in so many different ways. It is the play when they don't have the puck that's really kind of stabilized us these last couple games. But that's all about commitment. And that's what they're showing.”

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