The 2013-14 version of the Tampa Bay Lightning produced one of the finest regular seasons in the team’s history.
The Lightning tied a franchise record with 46 wins, the same amount the 2003-04 Stanley Cup team achieved.
They eclipsed the 100-point plateau for just the third time ever.
The Bolts qualified for the playoffs after being left out the previous two seasons.
But during the summer that followed, none of the players or coaches wanted to remember the accomplishments of 2013-14. Instead, the lasting image from the season was of skating off the ice and walking into the tunnel at Montreal’s Bell Centre for the final time, having gone through the customary post-series handshake with the Canadiens following another defeat in Game 4.
The Lightning were swept by the Canadiens in four quick games during their First Round playoff series. Tampa Bay’s postseason experience lasted just one week, Montreal winning the first two games despite the Lightning’s home-ice advantage and completing the rout with two more wins at home.
That quick exit from the playoffs stuck with the Lightning during the summer, guided their offseason decision making and provided fuel for the historic season that was to follow in 2014-15.
“We never hung our hat on what we did last year in the regular season,” Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said right before his team boarded a charter flight Friday to return to Montreal for a repeat playoff matchup against the Canadiens. “We were more sitting on thorns about what happened in the playoffs.”
The Lightning get another crack at the Canadiens and a chance to erase any lingering unpleasant memories from last season in the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which begins tonight at the Bell Centre (7 p.m. puck drop).
“We really weren’t worried about who was going to win Montreal-Ottawa,” Cooper said. “We were worried about who was going to win Tampa Bay-Detroit. Whoever we face, we face.
“And it just so happens to be Montreal.”
The Lightning limped into last season’s series against the Habs, most notably, losing goaltender Ben Bishop to a dislocated elbow in the final week of the regular season.
In-series injuries to forward Ondrej Palat and defenseman Radko Gudas further eroded the Bolts confidence.
“You never know how series are going to pan out, but you always want to put your best foot forward and see where all the chips lie,” Cooper said. “For us, so many different things happened to us last year. And the one thing about that, it’s not an excuse for us. You go in with your organization and guys get hurt. That’s part of the game. But we were just an inexperienced team last year. We hadn’t been through the playoffs, hadn’t been through a series, and unfortunately we got swept last year.”
The Lightning are a different team this go round. Tampa Bay brought in experienced playoff veterans Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle during the offseason, added grit in players like Brenden Morrow and bolstered their back end by trading for defensemen Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn.
Their contributions were invaluable during the First Round series against Detroit when the Bolts rallied from a three-games-to-two deficit and won Games 6 and 7 to advance.
“(The veterans) spoke the day before Game 7,” Bishop said. “They all talked about kind of their experiences, and they’ve all done pretty well in those situations. When you can have those guys step up and talk about being there and have done that, it obviously helps all us first timers.”
The Lightning are seasoned too, having faced two elimination games against Detroit, including one in a hostile road environment at Joe Louis Arena. They won’t be intimidated by the enormity of the situation or the intensity of the notoriously raucous Bell Centre crowd as they were a year before.
“We faced some adversity having to win Game 6, Game 7,” Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said. “I think that experience definitely helps…We realize how hard series are to win and how hard it is to close out series too, so it’s a good experience for us and hopefully it can carry over.”
The Lightning are a confident group heading to Montreal. They swept the Canadiens over five regular season games, outscoring the Habs 21-8.
The Bolts were 3-0-1 against Montreal in the 2013-14 regular season, however, which proves that regular season results matter little in the playoffs.
“(The playoffs are) a different season,” Bishop said. “That’s what everybody says. They kind of have the hand up on us. We swept them in the regular season. They swept us in the playoffs. Now it’s going to be up to us to show that we can beat them in the playoffs.”
The Lightning will get their first chance to prove they can beat the Canadiens when it matters tonight.
And, in the process, they can show the rest of the NHL just how much they’ve grown in a year.