We’ve always known what this year’s version of the Tampa Bay Lightning could do. One look at the roster was enough for that, and if you caught them on a good night, the highlight reel would drive it home. What they could do has never been in doubt; we’ve just been waiting to see them do it, and do it consistently enough to be considered a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup.
Last night, for one game at least, we saw them do it all. They smothered the Canadiens, choking the life out of Montreal’s comeback hopes in an impressive 4-1 win that ended the second-round series and sent the Lightning on to the conference finals. It was easily their best game of the series, probably their best game of the playoffs, and maybe even their best game of the season, all things considered. The hockey world was watching, waiting for Montreal to continue its comeback. Instead, the Habs got smoked.
So did we learn anything last night? Maybe not. On paper, the Lightning are one of the league’s best young teams. We’ve known that since last year, when they ended a two-year playoff drought with a 101-point season before being swept by the Canadiens in the opening round.1 We knew it when general manager Steve Yzerman spent the offseason patching over all the roster’s visible holes, rebuilding the blue line and adding depth up front. We knew it during the regular season, as they racked up 108 points while posting the second-best goals differential in the league.
And we knew it during the first three games of the series, as the Lightning opened up a 3-0 lead thanks to two close wins and a blowout. Then we tried not to forget everything we knew as Montreal clawed its way back into the series, posting a dominating win in Game 4 and then holding on for a narrow Game 5 win at home. Suddenly, the Canadiens had the momentum, and there was a sense of history in the air. Or at least there was until Game 6 started, when the Lightning looked like champions.
Maybe the most impressive aspect of the Lightning win last night was that they ran over Montreal without their best lineup. They did it without Ryan Callahan, the veteran winger who underwent an emergency appendectomy on Monday. They did it without Jonathan Drouin, the third overall pick from the 2013 draft who the team seems to have lost faith in; he was a healthy scratch in all but two games in the series.
And perhaps most impressively, they did it without Steven Stamkos. Oh sure, the Lightning captain was in the lineup last night. He even scored the second goal, snapping one past Carey Price five minutes into the second. But that was a Steven Stamkos; it wasn’t the Steven Stamkos. That Stamkos is borderline unstoppable; the one we got in this series was stoppable. Throughout the postseason, he’s never looked quite right. He’s not listed on the injury report, but if the Lightning season ends and we find out he’s been playing through something and is headed off for surgery, nobody will be surprised.
And yet, half of Stamkos was enough for Tampa Bay in this series. That speaks to the depth this team has put around him, the guys like Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. On the opening goal, Kucherov tipped Palat’s feed past Price, and Kucherov later added an empty-netter. Palat scored the 3-0 marker, and Johnson’s key goals this postseason have him solidly in the Conn Smythe picture.
All three of those guys were rookies last year. They’re going to get better, just like 24-year-old defensive stud Victor Hedman will get better. The Lightning are one of the youngest teams in the league. And that’s what made them so hard to project.