By Tim Wharnsby
The Tampa Bay Lightning have returned to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in 11 years with an entirely new cast and new-found confidence after beating the National Hockey League's old guard along the way.
Tampa Bay has a new owner in Jeff Vinik, new general manager Steve Yzerman, a different coach in Jon Cooper and a totally changed roster awaiting the Western Conference champion Anaheim Ducks or Chicago Blackhawks.
Whether the Ducks or Blackhawks emerge, do not expect Tampa Bay to be intimidated when the finals start on Wednesday.
Even though many key Lightning players including captain Steven Stamkos, high-scoring Tyler Johnson and goalie Ben Bishop are making their first deep run into the Stanley Cup playoffs, they are playing like they have been there before.
When the Lightning beat the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden on Friday to reach the final, Tampa Bay became the first team to beat three of the NHL's original six clubs in the same postseason.
The Lightning got by the Detroit Red Wings in seven games in the opening round, then the Montreal Canadiens in six games and Rangers in seven games in the East final.
"You know what? We've played in some pretty special buildings along this playoff run so far," said Stamkos, whose team has gone 7-3 on the road in this playoff run.
"You start in Detroit, you go to Montreal, you come here (to Madison Square Garden).
“That says how tough the road has been. Those are tough places to win.”
Cooper said his young players have leaned on forwards Valtteri Filppula, Brian Boyle, Brenden Morrow and defencemen Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle for their knowledge and experience.
Filppula won a Stanley Cup with the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings. Boyle and Stralman played in the finals a year ago with the Rangers.
Coburn and Carle went to the finals with the 2009-10 Philadelphia Flyers, and Morrow will return to the final stage after getting there his rookie season with the 1999-00 Dallas Stars. “The young guys and the guys who haven't been there before, they believed,” Cooper said. “And listening to guys that have been there before, there are no better people to listen to.”
(Reporting by Tim Wharnsby in Toronto; Editing by Larry Fine)