Lightning recapture winning identity, eye another deep NHL playoff run

TAMPA — It was the first week of January, and the Lightning were trying to find themselves.

The official halfway point of the season arrived with a 7-3 loss in Boston. Tampa Bay, with only two more wins than regulation losses, found itself outside of a playoff spot, one of four teams within two points of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

For the first time in seven seasons, they were in real danger of missing the postseason. Something had to change.

“It was kind of a reality check for us, where we’ve got to look in the mirror and we’ve got to start playing the right way,” center Anthony Cirelli said. “That playoff mentality’s got to start now. And I think it was just that mindset of going out there and doing the little things right, and it’s helped, for sure.”

The Lightning went 26-12-3 over the second half, including a 9-1-1 stretch throughout most of March and into April that allowed them to pull away from the pack and into a firm grasp of the first wild-card position.

“I think we know that we’re a very offensively gifted team with the skill set that we have, but you’ve got to play at both ends of the rink,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “Just taking some of the risk out of your game at this time of year to be successful, I think we realized that, obviously.

“It’s just a trickle-down effect from everything. Special teams has been really good. Goaltending has been good. That helps, and confidence gets high.”

Over that second-half stretch, the Lightning recaptured their identity from their championship past, even if many of those players are no longer with them. It makes them a dangerous team heading into the postseason, which begins Sunday against the Panthers in Sunrise.

“It’s the most important thing to have at this time of year,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “I think we showed, especially in that run we went on in March, that we did a lot of small details right, we weren’t turning pucks over. And that’s going to be super important, especially against a team like Florida.

“It’s just about everyone buying in, and we have everyone buying into it. You’ve got to do tweaks sometimes regarding personnel, but I think the main things that we have are kind of imprinted in our DNA, and that’s just the way we play here. ... We’ve created a culture mentality that’s been working.”

The Lightning eliminated the turnovers that were gifting opponents odd-man rushes and high-danger scoring chances. But it was their attention to detail in their own end that allowed that to matter. The defense got the puck out more cleanly, the forwards did a better job of backchecking. Players were more responsible with the puck in the neutral zone. And they protected goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy by blocking shots, getting in passing lanes and clearing the front of the net.

“When you compete with your team and you see the results against some of the top teams going toe-to-toe, and especially with the pedigree that (the Lightning) have in the playoffs, you go into there saying, ‘OK, we’re dialed in. We have our identity. We have our DNA back,’” said NHL Network analyst and former player Bill Lindsay. “Some of the bottom teams (that were fighting for the final playoff spots) in the East, like Washington or the Islanders or Pittsburgh, like, I couldn’t tell you what they are.

“I can tell you what Tampa Bay is now. They’re more of a complete team. They’ve gotten their defensive structure back, they can rely on their goaltending, red-hot power play. They very much resembled what some of the teams that won the Stanley Cup were. So you know who you are, and you know what has to be done to be successful for your team going into the playoffs. If you know that and understand that, then you’re on the right track.”

When the Lightning were on top of their game late in the season, it was their stars leading the way.

Right wing Nikita Kucherov had his best season yet, a second Art Ross Trophy already in his possession and a second Hart Trophy possibly on the way. Vasilevskiy overcame preseason back surgery to regain his form as one of the league’s top big-game goaltenders. Hedman bounced back from an off season, Stamkos hit 40 goals for the seventh time, and center Brayden Point had his second straight 90-point season.

The Lightning overcame a regular-season-ending injury to defenseman Mikhail Sergachev in the first game after the All-Star break. Interestingly, placing Sergachev on long-term injured reserve gave general manager Julien BriseBois the cap space he needed to acquire forward Anthony Duclair and defenseman Matt Dumba at the trade deadline. The veterans fit in seamlessly and brought needed experience and energy to the dressing room

“You’ve got to give Julien credit,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “With the resources we had, to do what he did and and fit the pieces in the puzzle, that is a boost for guys. It’s just like a little adrenaline hit. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence kind of where we took off from the pack of teams that were there to put ourselves in it.”

But Cooper gave his veteran core — the stars that remain from those Cup-winning teams like Stamkos, Hedman, Kucherov, Point and Vasilevskiy — credit for rallying the Lightning when they needed to be pushed and demanding better because they knew they had it in them.

“You look at this season, and expectations in this room are always high,” Cooper said. “And you have a leadership core that knows how to get it done. I don’t question them and what happens. It was getting everybody on the same page. And whether you could call it urgency, looking up at other teams in the standings — where are we, and what do we need to do to get in? — that leadership group pushed it.

“... Is it a team effort? It is. Do the coaches have something to do it? Naturally. Does the general manager have something to do with what he did at the deadline? Of course. But that’s what’s made this whole thing work. But I never had a meeting from Game 1 to now where they didn’t believe.”

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