The Tampa Bay Lightning can breathe a sigh of relief.
After three seasons without a postseason victory, the Lightning won four games against Detroit to win their First Round Stanley Cup Playoffs series four-games-to-three and advance to the Second Round, where they’ll meet up with Atlantic Division nemesis Montreal, the team that swept the Bolts out of the playoffs last season.
Game 7 was a perfect microcosm of the Bolts’ regular season: Ben Bishop starred in a 31-save shutout effort; scoring contributions continued to come from unlikely sources, this time in the form of defenseman Braydon Coburn, who registered his first goal in a Lightning uni; and veteran leadership helped the team persevere in a tight spot, like Anton Stralman keeping the team calm when his apparent series-sealing goal was waved off only to ice it again roughly six minutes later.
The Lightning learned a lot about themselves against Detroit. Here are the three biggest takeaways from Wednesday’s electrifying Game 7.
1. LIGHTNING COME OF AGE
Last season’s First Round, four-game sweep at the hands of the Canadiens could be excused by an unfortunate combination of youthful inexperience and untimely injuries.
The Lightning were expected to win this season against Detroit, however. Their sterling home record in the regular season (32-8-1) and home-ice advantage ensured the Bolts would have the upper hand.
But down three-games-to-two and having to win the final two games of the series, one on the road in Detroit, the Lightning could have folded under the pressure and bowed out of the postseason in the opening round for the second-straight year.
Instead, they proved a lot of doubters wrong.
In a hostile environment, Tampa Bay played its best game of the series in Game 6 to win 5-2 and force a winner-take-all Game 7. At home, they overcame a shaky start, played smart, determined hockey throughout and were rewarded with the winning goal early in the third period.
A Lightning team with a healthy mix of young talent and newly-acquired playoff vets took a big leap forward as a group on Wednesday, their stay in the postseason not the brief, seven-day experience it was a year ago.
“We dipped our toes in the water last year,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “This year we actually get to jump in the pool.”
Had Tampa Bay lost in the First Round again, questions about whether the Lightning were regular-season warriors and postseason posers would have risen.
And rightfully so.
“I think it’s probably a weight off everybody’s shoulders to get to the Second Round,” Cooper said.
Added Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman: “I definitely think we grew up a little bit as the series went on.”
2. STAMKOS’ HIDDEN VALUE
A lot was written about Lightning captain Steven Stamkos not getting on the score sheet against Detroit.
Stamkos was the second-leading scorer in the NHL with 43 goals during the regular season but was shut out in all seven First Round games.
Stamkos value, however, isn’t merely limited to goals.
On Coburn’s score, Stamkos played a major role in producing the game-winning goal.
As Ryan Callahan came out from behind the Detroit net with the puck, Stamkos skated into the slot, drawing the attention of three Wings. Those three focused on Stamkos while closing down Callahan, leaving Coburn completed unaccounted coming into the right circle.
Callahan waited until he had a clear path to dish to Coburn, and Coburn slid toward goal with his stick ready to shoot, beating Wings goalie Petr Mrazek stick side when the puck finally came his way.
Because Stamkos is a known goal scorer, opponents must stick tight to prevent him from going off. That opens the door for guys like Coburn. The Lightning have benefitted from this scenario all season.
Stamkos’ goal drought doesn’t concern Cooper one bit.
“I think the fact that Stammer hasn’t scored and we won the series probably bodes well because it just kind of speaks to the depth of our team,” Cooper said. “I don’t think anybody can sit here and say one guy carries the team. It’s a team effort.”
It’s a pretty safe bet Stamkos won’t get shut out in a second playoff series.
“Trust me, Stammer’s time to shine is coming up,” Cooper said.
3. SPOTIGHT SHINES ON BEN BISHOP
In the buildup for the Tampa Bay-Detroit series, the media focused mainly on Red Wings netminder Petr Mrazek, the rookie making his postseason debut after spending a good portion of the season in Grand Rapids, Mich., with the Wings’ minor league AHL affiliate.
Lightning goalie Ben Bishop was an afterthought despite the fact he set a franchise record with a career-best 40 regular seasons wins and was also making his first appearance in the playoffs.
“I’m sure it’s tough when you have to look at the other side, and they’re saying, ‘Well, Petr Mrazek stole Game 1 for them. He’s the reason that they’re up two-games-to-one and reason they’re up three-games-to-two. He’s recorded two shutouts,’” Cooper said. “Somebody’s getting a lot of press and the other guy’s not, I’m sure mentally that’s a strain at some point on you. But, when the dust settles and its 3-3 going into Game 7, pretty good chance you need your goalie to be your best player.
“And he was (Wednesday).”
Bishop saved his strongest postseason performance for when it mattered most, stopping all 31 shots for his first career playoff shutout. When the Lightning were struggling to keep possession of the puck, Bishop built a wall around his net, keeping the Wings off the board and the Bolts in the game.
He answered a lot of critics who wondered whether he could be the playoff-winning goaltender the Lightning needed with his work Wednesday night.
“I thought he played real well,” Stralman said. “He looked very calm, relaxed. I thought he played really well persistently. It seems like all the shots, he was square and faced it.”
Asked whether he had proven himself in Game 7, Bishop remained humble, like he has all season.
“Maybe, I don’t know what they’re going to say,” Bishop said, referring to his critics. “But it’s definitely nice to get a win tonight and obviously win the series.”