Thursday, June 25, 2015

Much more thrill than agony

For the Tampa Bay Lightning, the 2013-14 season ended in the first round of the playoffs. With Vezina finalist Ben Bishop sidelined by injury, they lost four straight games to Montreal and suffered the ignominy of a sweep.

A whole season and post-season have since passed without the Bolts experiencing another four-game losing streak. In fact, they did not even experience a three-game losing streak until Games Four through Six of the Stanley Cup Finals, when the dynastic Chicago Blackhawks edged past them to wipe out their 2-1 series lead and make them finish as runners-up rather than champs.

Now that the 2014-15 season is over, we know it was not only a major step forward but also the second-best season in franchise history. With that said and more than a week having passed since we felt the bitter sting of our team coming up short in its quest to win the Cup, it is time to take a look back and appreciate what we witnessed.

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The goal of every athlete is to win his sport's ultimate championship and the dream of every sports fan is to see his team reach that pinnacle. But dreams aside, some fans have, shall we say, a complicated relationship with reality; and all fans must temper their dreams with those cursed buggers known as "expectations."

Fortunately, most of us Lightning fans are knowledgeable about our team and the NHL at large, and those who are new to the fold are quick studies. Remembering the whimper of last year's early exit, our initial hope was simply that the Bolts improve; specifically, that they improve by advancing past the first round, which had not happened in these parts since 2011.

When the playoffs began and we looked at the Bolts' maturation from last year and outstanding performance across the course of the regular season, we knew they were among the six or seven teams that had a legitimate chance to win it all. After all, their 50 wins and 108 points were both franchise records, exceeding the marks set by the 2003-04 squad that won both the Stanley Cup and President's Cup.

However, we also knew that these Bolts were extremely young (with 15 players age 25 or younger) and thin on championship experience (with only one player having ever played on a Cup-winning team).  We knew that as a unit, they had yet to win a single playoff game, and that Ben Bishop had yet to even appear in a playoff game. Finally, we knew their team defense remained their primary weakness even though it was improved compared to 2013-14... And so we chewed our bottom lips with realistic fear even as we daydreamed with realistic hope. We kept reminding ourselves that if the Bolts advanced, we would consider the season to be a success and the sky to be the limit.

With that in mind, this season was not only a success but a rousing one. In the final game of the regular season, the 2014-15 Bolts avenged the 2010-11 Bolts' Game Seven loss in the Eastern Conference Finals by defeating the Boston Bruins to keep them out of the post-season... Then they advanced past the first round by overcoming a 3-2 series deficit to the Red Wings and shutting them out in Game Seven... Then they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals by discarding the Montreal Canadiens and Carey Price, who is reputed to be the best goaltender on the planet... Then they won the Eastern Conference and advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals by discarding the New York Rangers, who not only had the best record in the NHL but also had Henrik Lundqvist, who is reputed to be the clutchest goaltender on the planet.

Plus, by eliminating the Rangers the Lightning: 1) prevented Martin Iscariot St. Louis from winning a Cup at their expense, and 2) became the first NHL team ever to vanquish three Original Six franchises in a single post-season.

Along that road to the finals, Ben Bishop became only the third goalie in NHL history to record two Game Seven shutouts in a single post-season. The Bolts ended what was arguably the most legendary streak in sports by becoming the first team in the Rangers' 88-year history to defeat them on their own ice in a Game Seven. And they also ended Lundqvist's much ballyhooed streak of six straight Game Seven victories.

They played better with each passing round even though they faced a tougher foe each time... Their team defense improved dramatically and became a strength rather than the weakness it was thought to be at the end of the regular season... Their top defensive pairing of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman emerged as arguably the best in the league... And their second forward line -- the so-called Triplets Line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov -- emerged as arguably the best in all of hockey.

Jon Cooper, who no one had heard of a couple years ago, became universally regarded as one of the NHL's best coaches and the face of its coaching future.

In the same vein, the Lightning became universally regarded as a bold organization that trusts its people and is unafraid to buck conventional wisdom.

Them ain't bad apples if you ask me, and they're a far cry from the rotten ones that plagued the organization before it was bought by Jeff Vinik.

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We should appreciate how many highlights there were during the playoff run.

Against the Red Wings, there was the pile on rout in Game Two and the exhilarating rally to pull out Game Four in overtime... There was the great play (and harbinger of things to come) that ended Game Four when Victor Hedman exploded down the right side, drew Petr Mrazek out of the crease, then feathered a cross-ice pass to Tyler Johnson for the winner... There was the beautiful, stunned silence that fell on Joe Louis Arena when Johnson's winner went in... There was Ben Bishop rising to the occasion in Game Seven, willing the Bolts to victory by pitching a shutout when they were outshot 31-17... There was Braydon Coburn scoring the Game Seven winner from the top of the circle, 3:58 into the third, when he one-timed Ryan Callahan's pass high and inside the opposite post while Mrazek desperately scrambled to the near one.

That series showed the Bolts were unafraid of adversity, that they could withstand the hottest of pressure cookers and come out on top... It showed that despite their youth, they could defeat a playoff-seasoned veteran squad loaded with championship experience... It showed they could do all of those things even when Steven Stamkos, the NHL's second-leading scorer in the regular season, went the whole series without putting the puck in the net... But perhaps most memorably, the series featured Johnson's arrival as an electrifying star that the entire hockey world knows about.

Against the entitled revered Habs, there was that stupendous six-goal outburst in Game Two, with the power play finally breaking out with four goals and Stamkos finally scoring on this breakaway against Carey Price... There was Tyler Johnson scoring with 1.1 second left in Game Three, using one move of his stick to break an NHL record and give the Bolts a 3-0 series lead... On that goal, there was Victor Hedman again with the assist, from all the way down in the corner of the offensive zone as if he was a forward rather than a defenseman... And there was Stamkos asserting his authority by unleashing this wrister to beat Price on what proved to be the series-winner in Game Six.

That series showed that Round One was no fluke. It showed that the Bolts were not intimidated by goaltending excellence. It showed they had what it takes to keep getting better even as they got deeper into the playoffs. And as Johnson recorded five points at Montreal's expense, it showed that his stellar play versus Detroit was not an anomaly.

Against destiny's supposed child (a.k.a. the 2014-15 New York Rangers) there were the fireworks of hanging six goals on Henrik Lundqvist not once, but twice, and in back-to-back games at that... There was the Triplets Line befuddling Lundqvist so much that he seemed ready to throw in the towel with his comments immediately following Game Three... There was Johnson notching a natural hat trick in Game Two, by virtue of a short-handed goal on a 3-on-5 penalty kill, followed by a picture perfect top-shelfer off a power play feed from Stamkos, followed by this greasy even-strengther on which the diminutive centerman prevailed in a multi-player goalmouth bang-up... Then there was Nikita Kucherov defying conventional wisdom to win Game Three in overtime, when, as his linemates went off for a line change, he charged down the ice, skated across the Rangers' blueline, used a backpedaling defenseman as a screen, and rifled a wrist shot so fast that it made it from the point to the back of the net before Lundqvist had a chance to react... And, there was a Crimson-on-Crimson goal to win the series when Alex Killorn (Tampa Bay's Harvard grad) circled atop the crease while being defended by Dominic Moore (New York's Harvard grad) and somehow managed to slip the puck through Lundqvist's five hole.

That series proved that... well, there really wasn't much left to prove as far as the Lightning belonging in the NHL's elite, but the series proved it anyway. It showed that they were not intimated by reputation and history. Prior to Game Seven, when Stamkos was asked about Lundqvist's six-game winning streak in Game Sevens, he made our hearts pound with pride and confidence by answering that "he's a great goaltender, but he's never played the Tampa Bay Lightning in a Game Seven before."

Then came the Stanley Cup Finals, and although the ultimate outcome wasn't what we wanted, those finals still provided moments that I remember only with a smile. There was Nikita Kucherov deftly redirecting Jason Garrison's shot past Corey Crawford to even Game Two just 92 seconds after Chicago had taken the lead... Later in the same game, there was Garrison scoring the winner (off an assist from Hedman, of course) some five minutes after Chicago tied it on a goal that should have been disallowed because of goaltender interference... There was Cedric Paquette completing a third period comeback to win Game Three, by knocking in a perfect centering feed that came, of course, from Hedman... There was 20-year-old rookie netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy, playing Game Four when Ben Bishop was injured and performing so well that he looked like an unflappable veteran... There was Johnson playing most of the series with a broken wrist, Bishop playing much of it with a torn groin, and Kucherov returning for Game Six after absorbing this excruciating collarbone cracker in Game Five.

Unfortunately for us, Crawford shut the door in Games Four through Six and played every bit the role of Jacques Plante or Martin Brodeur, turning aside seemingly every Lightning chance and overturning the fact that the Lightning played more than well enough to win. If you've watched enough hockey, you know that in a situation like that there really isn't a damn thing you can do.

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There is no point in playing the "what if" game. On the one hand it rejects reality because it seeks to ignore or deny what actually happened. On the other, it is blind to the fact that both sides can play "what if" with equal legitimacy. If a Bolts fan gripes that Stamkos missed a partially open net in the waning seconds of Game Four that would have forced overtime, a 'Hawks fan could just as easily gripe that Marian Hossa missed an entirely open net in Game Three that might have changed its outcome.

Nonetheless, I am writing this from a Tampa Bay point of view so I am going to indulge my feelings and ignore what my rational brain tells me to acknowledge.

If Stamkos had gotten that puck into the net, the Bolts likely would have prevailed in overtime -- which would have given them a 3-1 series lead, which would have probably led to them winning the Cup.

If Ryan Callahan had converted his breakaway opportunity late in Game One, which came less than two minutes before Chicago tied it up, then Chicago's comeback likely wouldn't have happened -- in which case the Bolts: 1) would have headed north with a 2-0 series lead instead of a 1-1 tie; 2) would have held a commanding 3-0 series lead after Paquette's Game Three winner; and 3) almost certainly would have won the Cup... For that matter, if Callahan had converted and Stamkos had scored into the partially open net in Game Four, the Bolts probably would have swept the Blackhawks.

If Ben Bishop hadn't inexplicably done this when Game Five was tied at zero, the Bolts might have gotten the crucial first goal and won the game -- in which case they would have entered Game Six leading the series 3-2 instead of trailing it 3-2.

But like Stephen King once wrote, "If is the only word a thousand letters long."

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It is impossible to look back at the 2015 playoff run without wondering what it might portend for the future, so here I go a-wondering.

We are blessed to have just one unrestricted free agent, and even more blessed by the fact that that UFA is the sadly unproductive Brenden Morrow. Given Jon Cooper's belief in his players and trust in his youngsters, next season's Bolts should look very much like this season's, and that is a decidedly good thing.

It is when we get beyond next season that things get "interesting" from a roster perspective. Stamkos will become a UFA unless Yzerman signs him to an extension before then (which I believe Yzerman will do).

The Triplets will start becoming restricted free agents. Since they are all bargains at their current salaries, they are sure to receive big offers from other clubs.

Hedman will be a UFA after two more seasons. By then he will deserve the salary of a Norris Trophy winner regardless of whether he has received the award.

Callahan will be thirtysomething, and given his injurious style of play, will he still be effective?

The most "interesting" scenario regards Ben Bishop, who is slated to become a UFA after next season. Because he was a Vezina finalist last year and almost won the Cup this year, he will command a lot of money unless he has a major drop-off in 2015-16.

Given Andrei Vasilevskiy's otherworldly talent and how well he has played in relief of Bishop -- and given the significant upside of third-stringer Kristers Gudlevskis -- the Lightning will be faced with a migraine-inducing, crossroads of a decision: Do they keep a playoff-proven upper tier goalie, in which case they will be forced to part with other key contributors because there just isn't enough room under the salary cap? Or do they part ways with him in order to have enough cap room to re-sign some of their other stars, which means they must turn the goaltending keys over to a couple of guys in their early twenties who have never gone through the rigors of starting a full season in the NHL?

Does Cooper give Vasilevskiy more starts next season, in order to provide the organization with more info on which to base its decision? If Yzerman finds himself leaning towards letting Bishop walk, does he deal him to another team at the trade deadline so that he gets something in return, something like a quality fifth or sixth defenseman?

Yes, the business side of hockey sucks. But the business side of hockey is part of the reality of hockey, and every winning team has to deal with it.

Fortunately, we have outstanding ownership and outstanding management, and I believe they will maintain this team's core and keep the Lightning among the league's handful of contenders for a long time.

Still, the window of opportunity is now open. Here's hoping that the Lightning are able to proceed through it, and that they proceed through it sooner rather than later.

Actually, I hope they do so both sooner and later.

Go Bolts!

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