Montreal collected at center ice, sticks in the air.
The Habs fans swinging towels above their head, from the ice view, a wall of red and white whipping back and forth.
Oleeeeeee…ole ole ole…Oleeeeeee…Oleeeeeeee
The Lightning, having gone through the post-series handshake line, having come from 3-1 down to tie Game 4 only to have a puck drift into goal in the last minute, having watched a promising regular season with 46 wins and 101 points derail in four nightmarish playoff games over seven short days, trudged off the ice into the darkness of the tunnel to the locker room, their Stanley Cup run over without even one win.
“It was a bitter taste in our mouth for a long time,” said defenseman Victor Hedman.
One year later, the Lightning are determined to rinse that memory from their collective brains.
“I think everybody remembers what last year felt like for us,” Tampa Bay All-Star center Tyler Johnson said. “We had to deal with it all summer, all year, people asking about it, asking questions. Even now, going into the playoffs, people are still referencing last year. I don’t think we have to worry about what happened last year. It’s a brand new team. A lot of variables have changed. We just have to do what we did all season, that’s stick together, that’s play good hockey and winning games.”
The parallels between 2013-14 and 2014-15 are compelling. The Lightning won four more games this season but again came in second in the Atlantic Division standings.
In consecutive years, they’re matched up with the third-place finisher in the Atlantic for their First Round series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
A year ago, the opponent was Montreal, a team the Lightning had considerable success against in the regular season.
This season, it’s Detroit.
Tampa Bay went 3-0-1 against the Canadiens before getting swept out of the playoffs in 2013-14 by the Habs.
This year, the Lightning won three of four meetings versus Detroit leading up to tonight’s Game 1 at Amalie Arena.
The Lightning, though, say this go-round will be different. They’re a more confident group entering the 2015 postseason. They have experience, albeit brief, that wasn’t present a year ago.
Johnson said the team “overhyped” the playoffs last season.
“Everyone was a little bit too stressed out, too nervous about it, and I think that kind of showed,” he said.
A handful of veterans acquired since the debacle in Montreal were brought to Tampa Bay with the postseason ahead in mind, players like Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle, who helped the New York Rangers go to the Stanley Cup Final last year, and Braydon Coburn, a trade deadline-day acquisition and 10-year veteran of the NHL who went to the Cup Final in 2009-10 with Philadelphia.
“It’s not so much when the puck first drops in Game 1, it’s really not where those guys shine,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s when things aren’t going your way, who understands there’s light at the end of the tunnel or who can help pull guys out of it or if things are going extremely well, who are the guys that know to temper expectations and keep things a little more level-headed? Well, it’s the guys who have been there before, and, in the past, I don’t know if we’ve had a ton of that in our locker room.
“But we do this year.”
The Lightning will also have Ben Bishop to backstop the back end.
Last season, Bishop set a Tampa Bay franchise record by winning 37 games in the regular season, but his year was cut short when he injured his elbow reaching for a puck and falling awkwardly against Toronto during the final week of the regular season.
Tampa Bay went into the Montreal series with inconsistent backup Anders Lindback and, at the time, 21-year-old Latvian rookie Kristers Gudlevskis its only options in net.
Neither was able to provide what Bishop had given the Lightning all season long.
“No offense to Lindy, he’s a great goaltender, great teammate, but Bishop was our rock all season long, so when he goes down like that right before playoffs when we’re already nervous and hyped up for it, it plays a different role,” Johnson said. “You have to think differently. Unfortunately for us, I thought we overreacted a little bit to it. I think that showed in the series.”
The vibe is different in the Tampa Bay Lightning locker room this season in the days leading up to Game 1. Last year, the Lightning were just happy to make it to the postseason.
This year, it was expected. Not getting to this point would have been a monumental letdown for the Bolts.
Now that they’ve taken care of business in the regular season, the real season begins.
“Training camp was different this year because we seemed a more mature group,” Cooper said. “I do remember the sting of last year when we lost out in Game 4 and I know that talking to players in the summer, they never really talked about how great a regular season we had, the guys talked about how bad it was at the end of the year and the playoff disappointment. So, just in that regard there, I knew we were better off coming into the year. Now, did I expect 108 points, 50 wins? I’m not so sure I did. But the guys in the room did, and you want that in your team.”
After setting numerous franchise records during a historic regular season, the 2014-15 Lightning are ready to erase the disappointment from last year’s flameout.
Step one begins tonight.
“I’m pleased with the progress of our team over the course of the season,” said Lightning GM Steve Yzerman. “We’re improving. Now the playoffs are a completely different story. Can we elevate our play and match the intensity and the level of play that a team needs to have to be successful in the playoffs? This is another step…This is a higher level of hockey, greater demands on the players physically and mentally. We played four games last year and were unable to win a game, but it was a valuable experience for us.
“Let’s see if we can take another step forward this year.”