When Steve Yzerman was named general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the early part of last summer, there was little doubt that one of the game’s greatest legends would eventually restore the Lightning franchise to legitimacy. Few, however, expected it to happen this soon.
Under a new owner, rookie head coach and a first-year general manager, the Lightning are back in the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season following Thursday’s 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. The win, although gratifying, was not as much reserved for celebration as it was to remind players of the taste of success and the sacrifice that it requires.
“For us, it’s been a long time coming, for the guys that have been here a few years,” forward Martin St. Louis told The Tampa Tribune. “It’s a chance at the big prize again. We haven’t played for that in a long time.”
Oh, the difference a year makes.
Exactly 365 days ago, Tampa Bay had just 74 points and three more regulation losses than it had wins. That was then. Now, the Lightning have already set the second-highest single-season point total in franchise history with 95 points, and the team still has five games remaining on the schedule.
For the first time in a long time, fans throughout the Bay Area, as well as two dozen players in the locker room, can think freely about the endless possibilities in store for a playoff run. Not just for this season, but for what appears to be a number of seasons, attributing credit to a job well done by Jeff Vinik, Yzerman and head coach Guy Boucher.
“It’s a long-term plan,” Vinik told the St. Petersburg Times. “We’re very excited to be in the playoffs this year. It’s great, but we put this team in place to fight for many years to come. So hopefully, this is one step on the way to being the world-class team we’ve talked about.”
If there is truth to the superstition of playoff beards, then the number three carries with it a similar aura.
Signs of good fortune started early on when three men took full control of the reigns and laid out a business plan to improve things both on and off the ice. Vinik, Yzerman and Boucher: a natural hat trick.
Steven Stamkos then became the first player in team history to record a goal in each of his team’s first three games to open a season. With the budding superstar as the catalyst, the Lightning went on to the best October in team history and led the Eastern Conference with a league-best 7-2-1 record through the first month of the season. A telling situation? Seven of the past 12 Stanley Cup champions did lead their respective conferences at that point in the season.
It also took Tampa Bay a three-game winning streak to clinch a playoff berth, coming three seasons after the most recent appearance in 2007, a first-round exit to the New Jersey Devils.
Still, Vincent Lecavalier called Thursday’s postseason berth a small step, but looking at the bigger picture, the Lightning have made leaps since the last time they played past the first week of April.
“We have a good group of people that are on the same page,” Boucher said. “To me, that’s the biggest achievement we’ve had this year. To have this entire group - and it’s a big group - on the same page. It’s very rare you get that, wherever you are.”
“I find that terrific for a first year,” he added. “That’s what I find special. Credit to the players, they battled through a lot of adversity.”
Four of the team’s top six forwards, including their captain, have missed a total of 85 games due to injury. Still, the Lightning held sole possession of first place over the Washington Capitals – winners of three straight Southeast Division titles – for nearly three full months from the end of December until early March. There was also a 2-6-4 stretch in early March and multiple losses to teams at the bottom of the standings such as the Islanders, Senators and Panthers.
Then again, the Bolts took seven of eight possible points from the Eastern Conference-leading Flyers, split the four-game season series with the Penguins, earned big wins over formidable opponents Vancouver and Chicago, and posted a combined season record of 14-0-0 against the Maple Leafs, Thrashers and Rangers.
“We should be proud of that,” St. Louis added.
They are proud, but they are looking for more.
“It’s not our goal to get in and be happy with the first round,” forward Ryan Malone said.
Still, as Lecavalier put it, it’s a step. And for the first time in a while, one that’s headed in the right direction.