Swagger wins: How the Tampa Bay Lightning grew into champions

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NEW YORK, NY - MAY 29: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates with teammate Nikita Kucherov #86 after defeating the New York Rangers by a score of 2-0 to win Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 29, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 29: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates with teammate Nikita Kucherov #86 after defeating the New York Rangers by a score of 2-0 to win Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 29, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

NEW YORK – After the Tampa Bay Lightning couldn’t clinch the Eastern Conference title at home in Game 6, palpable doubt from outsiders was the ambient noise in Steven Stamkos’s life.

“That might have been a little motivating, watching all the different networks talk about how the Rangers are this unbeatable force in Game 7. And give them credit, they’re a good team. But we believed in ourselves. You win three games in a building like this at this time of year, you deserve to move on,” he said after their 2-0 Game 7 victory over goalie Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Friday night.

“All the talk was on Lundqvist and his record in these games. But we said it before the game: We believe in our team. In ourselves. We had that confidence coming in. No one probably thought we were going to win this game. Not that we took it personally, but we had a little bit of an attitude coming in here.”

Attitude. Swagger. Confidence. These are things internalized by NHL players but rarely allowed to spill over into the public conscience. In a sport that’s painfully humble, the Tampa Bay Lightning play a brash, aggressive style and approach every game like it’s theirs to win no matter the circumstances.

“You shine the light bright on our guys, and they'll just put on sunglasses and walk right through it,” said coach Jon Cooper.

Their coach is the catalyst for that confidence. They believe in him and there’s a mutual trust between them. For example, while other coaches freely throw their lines in a blender if the team struggles, Cooper didn’t fiddle with his top six. The result? Twenty of the 21 goals they scored in the Eastern Conference Final were scored by his top six forwards.

“I've watched this team get pushed against the wall. When you watch this team give up five, and five, and seven [goals] the other night.  But they just answer the challenge. Every time we as a staff go in and challenge them, they respond,” said Cooper.

“And they're such a fun team to coach because they can play the game in a multitude of ways.  You want to shoot it out, which our guys like to do, we can shoot it out.  We want to win, want to go to the Stanley Cup Final, then you have to play ‘D’  If you really want to do it, it's a choice.”

That’s the essence of the Lightning, the essence of their “our kung-fu is stronger than yours” attitude:

They know they can score on anyone, anywhere, anytime in the NHL.

“We have a really good offensive team. The key for us is keeping scoring chances even with the other team because we can score goals,” said defenseman Anton Stralman. 

So the Lightning approached Game 7 much like they approached Game 5 at MSG: Play a perfect game within their system in front of goalie Ben Bishop. Use their speed to limit chances. Sacrifice the body on blocked shots. Patiently wait for that chance to get a bounce against one of the best goalies on the planet.

Be confident. Don’t panic.

“That was probably the most calm Game 7 I’ve ever played in. On the bench … I don’t know what it was. Going into the third, we were loose. We knew we were playing the right way. We knew we were going to get one and go from there,” said Stamkos.

“It wasn’t pretty, but we found a way.”

His linemate Alex Killorn broke through against Lundqvist in the third period – an essential goal, given that the Lightning are now 9-0 when scoring first in the postseason.

The lead was doubled later by Ondrej Palat on a feed from center Tyler Johnson: The team’s much-heralded “Triplets Line,” which couldn’t get on track on the first two periods of Game 6 and the first period here, but came through when it mattered most.

“Every game’s a little bit different. The soft areas you have to find. And it took a little while for us to find it tonight,” said Johnson, who leads the playoffs with 21 points.

Johnson is 24. So is Palat. Their linemate, Nikita Kucherov, is 21. The perception from many was that the Lightning couldn’t match the experience the Rangers had in a seven-game series.

The perception was shortsighted. 

“This is the best leadership group I’ve been a part of. And the young guys have won at different levels,” said Stamkos. “You look around at the players in this room that were brought in for the last couple of years, this is the moment they were brought in for.”

GM Steve Yzerman added Ryan Callahan, Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle to the team last seasons. All former Rangers, and two of them having played with the Rangers in their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014.

Before Game 7 at MSG, Cooper didn’t give a rousing Herb Brooks-ian speech. He turned the floor over to his veterans, the ones that had played and won in Game 7s in that building.

“There was a lot of talk was about the Rangers and their records in elimination games and Hank's records and stuff like that, but nobody did their research on the records of the boys we brought in here,” said Cooper.

“Did we lean on those guys? There is no question we did. The young guys and the guys that haven't been there before, they believed.”

Winning Game 5 at MSG, in the manner that they did, gave the Lightning a ton of confidence heading into Game 7. In a strange way, the history of the Rangers in that building in that final game – having never lost a Game 7 at MSG – fed the Lightning’s confidence rather than intimidated them.

“Honestly, coming into this game, I didn’t feel too much pressure. With their record and with their expectations they have with going back to the Finals and winning and all that. I felt we didn’t have too much to lose in this game,” said Stralman.

Tampa’s at its best when the odds are the longest. Like, for example, believing they could defeat arguably the two best goalies in the world – Carey Price and Lundqvist – in consecutive rounds.

“We had success against Price in the regular season, and we had success against Lundqvist, and there was never a doubt in our guys' minds that we could score on these goalies,” said Cooper.

“Those are two of the greatest goalies, in my opinion, in our era that have ever played this game. But our guys have this attitude that we did it before, why can't we do it now? We just felt that all we need are a couple of chances and we're going to score.”

Every champion has some semblance of confidence and ego. Call it swagger, call it what you will, but the Lightning are champions that are comfortable in detailing that confidence.

Their mantra, in summary: ‘We will score on you. And when we execute our system to perfection, you will not score on us ...’   

“I don’t know if a lot of people believed in us, but we believed in ourselves and that’s all that mattered,” said Stamkos. 

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