The Tampa Bay Lightning will have a chance to complete some unfinished business.
After losing the Stanley Cup Final to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games last June, the Lightning made few offseason changes, opting to let a young team continue to develop under coach Jon Cooper.
Tampa Bay battled injuries and struggled through the first half of the season. But when key players started to get healthy, the Lightning took off. Tampa Bay won 10 of 11 in late January and early February, then set a Lightning record with a nine-game winning streak from Feb. 18 to March 5. That was more than enough to help Tampa Bay survive some struggles down the stretch and earn a return trip to the playoffs, where it'll try to win its second Stanley Cup. The Lightning were assured of a playoff berth on Tuesday when the Boston Bruins lost 2-1 in a shootout to the Carolina Hurricanes
Here are five reasons the Lightning clinched:
1. Big Ben
Few players have been as important to their team as goaltender Ben Bishop has been to the Lightning. While injuries and inconsistency plagued Tampa Bay for the first half of the season, Bishop provided Vezina Trophy-caliber goaltending. He won't reach last season's total of 40 wins, but he's in the top three among NHL goaltenders in goals-against average (2.06), save percentage (.927) and shutouts (six). His 34 wins are seventh.
Bishop has covered up for a lot of his teammates' mistakes, and he's been able to win when the Lightning are outplayed.
"There are team shutouts and there are goalie shutouts, take a guess which one that was," Cooper said after a 3-0 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 28, when the Lightning were outshot 34-18. "There are games you're going play and you walk out of there wondering how we didn't get a point. And then you have games, hopefully there are not near as many, where you say for sure we didn't deserve to roll out of there with a 3-0 win."
Video: TOR@TBL: Bishop stones Boyes, Nylander in the 1st
2. Stamkos can still score
Steven Stamkos didn't come close to matching the 60 goals he scored in 2011-12, but the Lightning captain showed he can still put the puck in the net. His 36 goals are tied for fifth in the NHL, and he leads Tampa Bay in power-play goals (14) and game-winners (eight).
With 312 goals in 569 games since entering the NHL in 2008, Stamkos has been the most consistent scorer in the League not named Alex Ovechkin during the past eight seasons.
But Stamkos won't be available for at least the early stages of the playoffs. The Lightning said Saturday that he has a blood clot near his right collarbone, the result of a rare vascular condition, and will miss 1-3 months. Stamkos had successful surgery on Monday and is expected to make a full recovery. He'll be evaluated in two weeks.
3. One 'Triplet' carries on
The "Triplets" line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat carried the Lightning to the Final last spring, But Kucherov, who had 10 goals and 22 points in the playoffs, is the only one who's been able to build on that success.
Johnson and Palat battled injuries and inconsistency for much of the season, but Kucherov became a 30-goal scorer for the first time in his NHL career. His 65 points are also a career high.
"You look at the skill set he possesses, it's the smarts too. He knows where to put the puck," Stamkos told the Tampa Bay Times last week. "He knows where to be. He knows where to support. And when you give him the puck in scoring areas, he can put it in the back of the net."
4. Victor Hedman
One year after the Lightning took Stamkos with the No. 1 pick in the 2008 NHL Draft, they made Hedman the second player selected in 2009. Though it has taken the defenseman a little bit longer, he's joined Stamkos among the NHL's elite.
Hedman is the linchpin of the Lightning's defense. He is Tampa Bay's third-leading scorer with 47 points, and leads the Lightning in plus-minus (plus-21) and average ice time (23:03). He's a shutdown player in his zone who can contribute offensively.
Hedman and Anton Stralman have been one of the NHL's best defense pairs this season. But Hedman will be on his own for at least the next month after Stralman fractured his left fibula in a game March 25.
Video: TBL@NYI: Hedman nets wrister as the 2nd winds down
5. Cooper keeps his cool
Cooper didn't panic when injuries and inconsistency helped drop the Lightning to sixth place in the Atlantic Division at the Christmas break. Tampa Bay was 18-15-3 before Christmas; it is 27-15-2 since then and qualified for the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
The Lightning were the NHL's highest-scoring team in 2014-15. They can still generate offense, but Cooper has succeeded in getting past the track-meet mentality they showed during parts of last season and adopting a more defense-oriented mindset.
Cooper's talents have not gone unnoticed; he got a multiyear contract extension in early December.
"I'm very pleased with the job Jon is doing," general manager Steve Yzerman said after the extension was announced. "I like the way our team plays, I like the style of hockey we play. I think it's a style that's conducive to being successful in the NHL. He's an intelligent guy, he's only going to improve as a coach and only get better in all areas."