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Depth, puck possession deliver Lightning to playoffs

by Corey Masisak

Three seasons ago the Tampa Bay Lightning, led by a coach who shot through the ranks to become an emerging young star, reached the postseason and came within a goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

The roster at coach Guy Boucher's disposal was highlighted by superstars Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, but it also was full of declining veterans. Instead of building off the team's breakout season, the Lightning regressed and general manager Steve Yzerman spent the past two seasons weeding out bad contracts and helping the club get younger.

Boucher went from rising star to unemployed, but instead of taking a conservative approach, Yzerman made another bold move by replacing him with Jon Cooper, another young coach who rocketed through several levels of hockey with great success to make it to the NHL.

The Lightning are back in the postseason, sealing a bid in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a win Tuesday against the Montreal Canadiens. They could be just as dangerous as they were in 2011. Even worse for other teams in the Eastern Conference, this group looks like it has some staying power.

Here are five reasons why the Lightning are back in the playoffs:

1. In-season possession improvement

The Lightning had a nice record when Stamkos crashed into a goal post Nov. 11 at TD Garden in Boston and broke his leg, but a huge part of that was great goaltending and a little bit of luck. Stamkos missed 45 games, but something unexpected happened: Tampa Bay got better at possessing the puck without him.

Had the Lightning tried to rely solely on the formula they used to win 12 of their first 16 games, or had Cooper done what many coaches would have without their star and turned to more conservative techniques, Tampa Bay might have crashed out of playoff contention.

Instead, the Lightning rolled through December and January without one the best players in the world. Starting with a 5-0 win Nov. 25 against the New York Rangers, the Lightning went 16-8-4 in a two-month span.

The Lightning became a top-10 team in Corsi-for percentage, and, at one point, nearly every regular on the team had a better CF percentage than Stamkos at the time of his injury. Stamkos returned in March and his possession numbers have improved. And though the team's overall numbers have slipped a bit, they still remain above average.

2. The kids are all right

Though the Lightning scuffled the previous two seasons, the team's American Hockey League affiliate thrived, winning the Calder Cup in 2012 and reaching the final in 2013. Just as the Detroit Red Wings have relied on a group of young players who skated in the 2013 Calder Cup Final, the Lightning have as well.

Ondrej Palat
Left Wing - TBL
GOALS: 19 | ASST: 34 | PTS: 53
SOG: 153 | +/-: 28
And just like the transition that happened with the Washington Capitals in 2007-08 when Bruce Boudreau took over, Cooper coached those players at the AHL level and has trusted them with prime roles for the Lightning.

Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson are two of the top four Calder Trophy candidates and average more than 18 minutes per game. Defenseman Radko Gudas has helped improve the defensive depth behind Victor Hedman and Matthew Carle while playing more than 19 minutes per game. Alex Killorn has 40 points and plays more than 16 minutes per game.

The team now is deep in young players, and the future looks even better with two of the top prospects in the world, forward Jonathan Drouin and goaltender Andrey Vasilevskiy, matriculating in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Ufa, Russia, respectively.

3. They found a goaltender

Vasilevskiy, the Lightning's 2012 first-round pick (No. 19) offers plenty of hope at the goaltending position, but his path to the starting job in Tampa Bay is not as clear as it was 12 months ago. Ben Bishop has been one of the breakout stars of the 2013-14 season.

Yzerman brought back Dwayne Roloson after his outstanding 2011 playoff run, but his decline was swift and precipitous. He then traded for Anders Lindback, hoping Pekka Rinne's backup with the Nashville Predators could be the answer.

Then Yzerman, knowing the depth he had coming in the minors, parlayed a strong start to the 2012-13 season by turning Cory Conacher into a trade with the Ottawa Senators for Bishop. Conacher no longer is playing for the Senators (he was waived and claimed by the Buffalo Sabres this season), while Bishop might spend a few days in Las Vegas at the 2014 NHL Awards.

Bishop's play has slipped slightly near the end of the season, but only from Vezina favorite to likely top-four finisher. He is 37-12-7 with a 2.16 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage.

4. Victor Hedman became a star

That 2011 Lightning team rode a turn-back-the-clock effort from Roloson to the conference finals, but the defense corps was the weak spot on that club. The issues on defense got bigger during the next two seasons.

Yzerman added Carle and Sami Salo before last season, but Mattias Ohlund's career likely has ended because of injury. One of the biggest reasons for Tampa Bay's turnaround this season is their potential young star on defense has become a fully formed one.

Now in his fifth season, Hedman has emerged as a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate. He has 12 goals and 49 points, is averaging more than 22 minutes per game and the Lightning attempt nearly 54 percent of their shots when he is on the ice.

5. They pillaged from Yzerman's old outpost

Trading St. Louis, the team's captain and best player in franchise history (at least until Stamkos gets older) while he was unhappy in the middle of a playoff chase, was further proof Yzerman is not afraid to make a tough move. This wasn't the first of these choices by the GM, who also used a compliance buyout on franchise stalwart Vincent Lecavalier after the 2012-13 season.

Valtteri Filppula
Center - TBL
GOALS: 25 | ASST: 32 | PTS: 57
SOG: 126 | +/-: 6
Free from Lecavalier's massive contract, Yzerman went looking for a new No. 2 center to play behind Stamkos. He found one in Valtteri Filppula, who he signed away from the Detroit Red Wings with a five-year, $25 million contract.

Filppula had great possession numbers with Detroit in 2012-13 but a down season in the back-of-the-hockey-card stats. He's been a huge pickup for the Lightning with 25 goals and 57 points in 71 games while helping the team stay afloat at center when Stamkos was injured. He's another reason this team is deeper and more dangerous than it has been the past few seasons.

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