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Lightning's Stralman at his best in big moments

by Dan Rosen

TAMPA -- The New York Rangers used to call Anton Stralman "Mr. Casual" because nothing seemed to excite him, not even the biggest games, including five Game 7s he played with them from 2012-14.

The Rangers won all those Game 7s. Now they're hoping Stralman's unwavering poise and uncanny ability to play a fast game in slow motion doesn't catch on with the rest of his Tampa Bay Lightning teammates in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Friday at Madison Square Garden (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

Stralman has been a leader by example for the Lightning this season, and they'll need to take their cues from him in a hostile road environment if they want to reach the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

"When the pressure is at its highest and somebody walks out of there as calm as can be, that's Anton Stralman," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "Our team, you just hear the guys on the bench praise him, the things he's done for us. Having that confidence that we get to throw him over the boards every second shift, it's just a luxury for us."

Stralman has never lost a Game 7 in his career. He ran his record in them to 6-0 in the first round against the Detroit Red Wings, when he scored an empty-net goal and played 22:38 in Tampa Bay's 2-0 victory.

He says it's his calm demeanor that enables him to have success when the stakes are at their highest.

"I'm a pretty calm guy. Not just on the ice, but overall I usually don't get too excited," Stralman said. "That's why I have that little lid on out there. In big games it's always fun, and I don't think you have to do anything special to amp yourself up. The game itself when you go on the ice is quite exciting, and you don't have to add anything extra into the mix.

"It doesn't matter what game I play, I always go in with the same mentality. Hockey itself doesn't change no matter how big the stakes are. It's another game and it's about playing well, doing everything you can to pull your load for the team. It's just hockey."

Just hockey. That's the attitude players who have been there and done that typically have. Nothing phases them. Stralman is that player for the Lightning. He is all the time.

Players and coaches who have been around him long enough are amazed at his ability to stay within the eye of the storm regardless of how the winds shift.

If the game is moving fast, his mind isn't. The right play is the one Stralman seems to make all the time. He's been compared by one media outlet in this series to Nicklas Lidstrom, a seven-time Norris Trophy winner and future Hockey Hall of Fame member.

That's kind of funny considering Cooper's line since getting to know the defenseman in training camp is, "Stralman may never win the Norris Trophy but his partner will."

He might not be wrong. Stralman's defense partner is the uber-talented Victor Hedman, who said he's never had the type of chemistry he has with Stralman with any other defense partner he's ever had.

"I think last year with Sami Salo was also very good, but with [Stralman] it's another level," Hedman said. "I wish I could tell you the reason why."

Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness has his theory.

Hint: It's because of Stralman.

"Anton can play with anybody; he really can," Bowness said. "When you have that much hockey sense and that much vision, you can play with anybody. Victor has got incredible abilities himself, but Anton is always just where he is supposed to be."

Bowness said Stralman reminds him of Teppo Numminen with more offense. Bowness coached Numminen with the Arizona Coyotes.

"Teppo was so consistent, but his positional play, his calmness, his read of the play was always in slow motion," Bowness said. "Anton is the same way. Some guys have the ability to see the game in slow motion, and others don't. You're always telling players to work, work, work and keep going, but you don't want the mind to work as fast as the body. The mind has to slow down, and Anton has that ability. That's why there is never a panic."

Part of Stralman's almost Zen-like style comes from perspective he's gained as a 28-year-old father of two boys and two girls, all between the ages of 8 and 3.

"You kind of automatically get disconnected from hockey as soon as you get home," he said. "You see the kids, and they don't care at all about how your game went. They're happy if you win, but if not it's the same to them. It keeps me humble."

Cooper said he knew from watching Stralman in the Stanley Cup Final last year how valuable he was to the Rangers. He called Stralman their "hidden MVP" because he did everything well and got none of the credit.

"Stralman always seemed to be the other guy, yet when we go through the tapes, he was always the guy on the ice when the other teams were putting out the best players," Cooper said. "He is definitely one of those guys you do not appreciate until you have him on your team."

The Rangers passed on the opportunity to re-sign Stralman, choosing instead to sign 38-year-old Dan Boyle for the same reported money per season ($4.5 million) but for three fewer years than Stralman got from the Lightning on July 1, 2014.

It hurt Stralman that he was never offered a contract by the Rangers.

"All I wanted was really to stay," he said. "It didn't work out that way. I was very disappointed that they didn't show more interest than they did. I really gave my heart and soul to that team for three years and I thought they could have handled it with a little more respect."

Stralman said the Rangers never communicated with him or his agent before July 1. It left him having to make a quick life decision, which never is easy with four kids.

"If they knew from the beginning that I wasn't coming back, I would have appreciated them telling me that so I could have moved along and prepared for what was coming," Stralman said.

Cooper said Stralman was at the top of Tampa Bay's list going into free agency, and the Lightning moved quickly to sign him. The official announcement was made about three hours after the market opened.

"It was July, and we were looking at who are we going to bring in. Who are the winners? Who are the guys that have been there before and have found a way?" Cooper said. "At the top of that list was Anton Stralman. When we were fortunate enough to ink him, I knew that was a turn for our team."

Now Stralman is one win from knocking out his old team. "Mr. Casual" gets the opportunity to do it in Game 7.

The moment will not be too big for him. It never has been. No moment ever is.

"It seems like he's never under pressure," said Lightning right wing Ryan Callahan, who played for the Rangers with Stralman.


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