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10 big reasons why the Lightning made the Stanley Cup Playoffs

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning made history during a highly-entertaining 2014-15 regular season.

Now, the real fun begins.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second consecutive season and eighth time overall.

Their First Round opponent is Detroit with Game One starting Thursday at Amalie Arena.

How did the Lightning get to this point?

Here are 10 big reasons why:

1. The Triplets

Take a bow if, before the 2014-15 season began, you predicted Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat would put up better numbers in their sophomore year.

Johnson and Palat had breakout seasons during their rookie campaigns in 2013-14, Palat finishing second to Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon for the Calder Memorial Trophy (rookie of the year) after accumulating 59 points (23-36) and Johnson coming in third (24-26, 50 points) in voting.

In 2014-15, the two were even deadlier. Johnson tied Steven Stamkos for the team scoring lead and put up more goals (29) and assists (43) this year despite playing five less games.

Palat tallied a team-high 47 assists and had 63 points in six less games.

Once Nikita Kucherov joined forces with the duo on October 24 in Winnipeg -- a move made out of necessity due to injury -- arguably the NHL’s best line was born.

On the score sheet from that Winnipeg game, the Bolts’ fourth goal reads: Ondrej Palat (3) ASST: Tyler Johnson (6), Nikita Kucherov (5).

That theme would be repeated often in 2014-15. The Triplets accounted for 199 points through the season, or 29 percent of the Bolts’ scoring.

Their instant chemistry and second line production are a big reason the Lightning are a Stanley Cup contender.

2. Stammer being Stammer

Coming off a broken leg that saw him miss 45 games of 2013-14, there were questions before the season whether Stamkos could regain his pre-injury form.

Stamkos allayed those fears in typical Stamkos fashion.

The Lightning captain recorded his eighth career hat trick in the third game of the season and continued scoring at a blistering pace throughout. Stamkos finished second in the league with 43 goals, 10 behind Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (53), and tied Johnson for the Bolts’ scoring lead.

His leadership in the locker room has been invaluable as well. Stamkos was named the 10th captain in Lightning franchise history late last season, a role the superstar has continued to grow into this year. At just 25-years-old, he provides a calming, veteran presence for the younger players and a positive example for the rest of the team to follow.

3. Home cooking

After going 32-8-1 at Amalie Arena during the regular season, the Lightning finished with the best home record in the NHL by a wide margin.

Tampa Bay’s 32 home wins were four more than Nashville (28), the next closest team. The Lightning established a new franchise mark for home victories, scored more goals at home than any other team (139) and allowed just 88, tied for third best in the league.

4. Bishop breaks own record

Last season, Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop had a breakout year, recording career highs for victories (37), goals-against average (2.23) and minutes (3,586).

His 37 victories in 2013-14 were the best in Lightning history.

This season, Bishop bettered that mark and then some. Big Ben broke his own record with a 4-0 shutout in Florida to pick up win No. 38 then added two more to reach the 40-win plateau for the first time in his career.

Mounting injuries forced Bishop to miss Tampa Bay’s playoff series against Montreal last year, and his absence was a major factor in the Habs’ four-game sweep.

Now healthy, Bishop and his consistent play give the Bolts plenty of confidence heading into this season’s postseason showdown vs. Detroit.

5. Depth charge

Tampa Bay was hit by a number of injuries throughout the season, but whenever adversity struck, the Lightning were able to reach down into their deep reservoir of talent in Syracuse and keep the system running smoothly in Tampa.

Jonathan Marchessault, Mike Blunden, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Nikita Nesterov, Mike Angelidis, Cedric Paquette, Slater Koekkoek and Luke Witkowski all started the season with the AHL Crunch but were recalled at various times throughout the season. Their ability to shuttle between the two leagues and perform at a high level in both speaks to the number of highly-talented players throughout the Bolts organization.

“You look at our defense, we’ve got nine guys up here now, and they can all play in the league,” said Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness, referring to the unusually large amount of defensemen on the roster currently because of injuries.

“That’s a great comfort for us.”

6. Boiler room

Brian Boyle

Number: 11

Height: 6’7”

Weight: 244

Position: Center, Emergency Defenseman, Penalty Killer, Power-Play Spark, End-Of-Game Lead Protector, Desperation Time Goal Chaser, We’re-Out-Of-Goalies Goaltender, Faceoff Warrior, Playoff Veteran, Mentor and Respected Teammate

7. Stralman & Garrison: two of the best offseason acquisitions in the NHL

Tampa Bay went into the summer in search of a veteran stalwart on the blue line.

They found two in Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison.

Stralman, playing his 8th season in the NHL, set new career highs for goals (9) and assists (30). He was arguably the Bolts’ best defender. Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Stralman has been “outstanding” in his first season with the team.

Oh, and he played all 82 games, the only defensemen to do so.

Garrison was traded to the Lightning along w/ Jeff Costello and a 2015 seventh round pick from Vancouver. The price: A 2014 second rounder.

In hindsight, who doesn’t make that trade?

Garrison’s plus-27 was the best plus-minus of any defenseman in the league and tied for seventh among all skaters. He tied a personal high with 26 assists, despite playing in 11 fewer games. Ten assists came on the power play.

Stralman and Garrison solidified the back end for the Lightning. They’ve been a welcome addition to Tampa bay

8. Chemistry

Not once during the entire 82-game regular season did Tampa Bay Lightning teammates get into an altercation with one another publically, whether at practice behind closed doors or during a game for the world to see.

No flare ups. No shoving. No need for teammates and coaches to intervene during any wild shouting matches.

These Bolts genuinely enjoyed playing with one another.

The newcomers mixed in seamlessly with the holdovers. Veterans and rookies became friends.

The Lightning enjoyed coming to the rink every day, and it showed in the way they played the game this season.

9. The Russian Roadblock

In mid-December, Andrei Vasilevskiy was recalled from AHL Syracuse to make his NHL debut against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center following a minor injury to starter Ben Bishop the previous night.

Vasilevskiy stopped 23-of-24 shots to collect a win in his first game.

In his next start, Vasilevskiy set a Tampa Bay rookie record with 45 saves vs. the New York Islanders and established himself as a goalie the Lightning could win with should Bishop be unavailable.

In 16 games, Vasilevskiy went 7-5-1 with a .918 save percentage and 2.36 goals-against average.

If everything goes as planned, the Russian won’t see the ice again this season as Bishop is the unquestioned starter heading into the postseason. But should he be called upon, the Lightning have confidence they can win a game, even a series, with Vasilevskiy in net.

10. Atlantic kings

Tampa Bay might have finished second to Montreal in the standings, but the Atlantic Division clearly belonged to the Lightning.

The Bolts swept all five games from the first place Canadiens. They took three of four from First Round playoff opponent Detroit. They beat Boston for the first time since the 2011-12 season.

Tampa Bay finished a remarkable 21-5-4 against Atlantic Division opponents. Other than splitting four games evenly with Toronto, the Lightning had a winning record versus every divisional foe.

That’s what’s known as dominating the division.

Feel like something’s missing? Add your reasons why the Bolts are where they are today in the comments below.

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