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Why the Lightning will win the Stanley Cup

by Arpon Basu

The Tampa Bay Lightning will win the Stanley Cup because they lost their best player.

There isn't a more battle-tested team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs than the Lightning, and getting past all the adversity they experienced this season will give them the wherewithal and confidence to overcome any they might face in the postseason.

When Steven Stamkos broke his leg after a violent collision with a goal post in a 3-0 road loss to the Boston Bruins on Nov. 11, it set off a chain reaction of events which have placed the Lightning on more solid footing than they were prior to the injury and placed them in position to make a run at the Stanley Cup.

The day after arguably the most potent goal-scoring machine in the world was lost, Lightning coach Jon Cooper met the media in Montreal.

He walked out of the visitor's dressing room at Bell Centre on Nov. 12 and saw the horde of reporters and cameras waiting for him to lament the loss of Stamkos a night earlier in Boston and how it stood to ruin what had been a fantastic 12-5-0 start to the season.

Few people gave the Lightning a great chance to compete for a playoff spot prior to the 2013-14 season, and losing Stamkos for what would become a four-month absence appeared to be too great a blow for even Cooper to understate.

Except Cooper wasn't prepared to give up on the season and defiantly predicted his club would not only survive, it would continue to thrive in the absence of its most important player.

"We're up near the top of the standings for a reason," he said defiantly that day, "and we're going to stay there."

The Lightning didn't quite stay at the top, but what they did was become a better team by fast-tracking the development of a number of young players who otherwise might not have gotten the same opportunity were Stamkos healthy. Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Richard Panik, J.T. Brown and Nikita Kucherov were all given expanded roles.

Team captain Martin St. Louis suddenly needed a playmaker on his line. After some trial and error, Cooper eventually settled on Palat on the opposite wing. Palat turned into a Calder Trophy candidate and, ironically, his emergence helped make it easier for general manager Steve Yzerman to respect St. Louis' request for a trade to the New York Rangers at the NHL Trade Deadline.

That, in turn, brought Ryan Callahan on board. The ex-Rangers captain is not nearly the offensive player St. Louis is, but he brings a combination of scoring ability and toughness that is rare and increases in value in the playoffs. He was, according to Cooper, the type of player the Lightning were lacking.

Stamkos' absence also meant the Lightning had to lean on goaltender Ben Bishop more, and he answered the bell, putting together a Vezina Trophy-worthy performance in his first full season as an NHL starter.

As the team grew more confident, the dependence on Bishop began to lessen, and the upper-body injury he sustained last week in a 3-0 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs does not loom nearly as large as it might have earlier in the season. Plus, the Lightning announced Wednesday that Bishop may be available at the start of the postseason.

"We've been in a position where sometimes this year we've needed Ben to win games for us, and he has," Cooper said prior to Bishop's injury. "In saying that, I believe our team has gotten into a position now where we don't need to rely on Ben near what we did earlier in the year.

"That's a testament to, I think, the growth of our team."

Stamkos returned as the team's new captain March 6 with the Lightning still holding strong in a playoff position, having gone 22-19-5 during his nearly four-month absence.

While Stamkos was gone, the Lightning became a team. With Stamkos, the Lightning are a contender.

And that is why it will be Stamkos who will be accepting the Stanley Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman in June.

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