At this point, even Lord Stanley must have his doubts.
After all the doubts you have had of your own, can you blame him?
As it turns out, the Tampa Bay Lightning, a group out to prove you wrong no matter what you think of them, is going back to visit old Stan. And won’t he be tickled to see us? After all, we are the fans with the tans, the ones with the mosquito bites, the ones yelling “Let’s score, ya’ll.”
And we’re back.
The Lightning, rising once again to the size of the game, shut out the New York Rangers Friday night at Madison Square Garden. Ben Bishop, who had been giving up goals by the fistful, stopped all 22 shots. He had also pitched a shutout in the Bolts’ previous game seven, against Detroit, and he had shut out the Rangers in a pivotal Game Five.
For the Lightning, it was good enough to propel the team back into the league finals for the first time in 11 years. Back then, the coach was John Tortorella and the goalie was Nikolai Khabibulin and the stars were Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavlier and Brad Richards and Ruslan Fedotenko and Dave Andreychuk. This time, the coach is John Cooper and the goalie is Bishop and the stars are Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson and Andre Palat and Nikolia Kucherov and Victor Hedman.
Still, there is a similarity to the way the teams play, to the youth, to the hunger.
So here come the Bolts. Start spreading the news.
Oh, wait. That’s a New York saying, isn’t it? And bully for the Rangers. They finished second. For all their talk about how the Rangers didn’t lose Game Sevens, well, as Cooper kept pointing out, they hadn’t played the Lightning. Turns out, who cares what happened when the world was watching black-and-white TV? This is a team built for now.
Odd, but this team seemed to fuel itself on doubts. Remember the first series of the post-season, when it fell behind the Detroit Red Wings and had to dig its way out? It did. Remember the second series, when it took a big lead against Montreal and then looked like it was on its heels trying to hold on? It did. Remember this series, when the Rangers were scoring goals in gobs, and the Lightning had to find a way to stop the bleeding. It did.
This is the most stubborn team ever. It invites your doubts, and it invites your praise, often on back-to-back games.
“We’ve just kind of got that group,” Cooper said. “I don’t know if we’re so young and dumb and don’t know any better.
“But you walk into that room, and I’ve watched this team get pushed against the wall, when you watch this team give up five, and five, and seven the other night. But they just answer the challenge. Every time we as a staff go in and challenge them, they respond.
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. I look at the two games we’ve played in here, Game 5 and Game 7, and as a coach, I don’t think we could have drawn it up any better. They made a choice. Do you want to go to the Final or not? And this is what happened.”
It happened again Friday night. The Lightning had given up 16 goals in its three previous home games. So, naturally, it threw a shutout. Bishop was a skyscraper in this one with 22 saves, but the defense in front of him was good, too. Together, they turned the Tampa Bay end of the ice into quicksand.
“You talk about eliminations games and your biggest player sometimes has to be your goaltender,” New York’s Derek Stepan said. “You talk about his numbers in elimination games, you know, off the charts. I think the core guys — and the core guy — kind of leads the charge.”
“You shine the light bright on our guys, and they’ll just put on sunglasses and walk right through it. It’s unreal how they respond, and it starts with our goaltender. He’s much maligned for giving up the goals he gave up in the end, but the two pivotal games that we’ve needed to win in this building, he shut the door.
Then it goes right to Stammer, to Fil, and the triplets, and I look at the back end. I look at Anton Stralman and Hedman, and I don’t know. I’m out of words. I’m so really I’m just so happy for them. I’m really, genuinely happy for our players, and I know how much they’ve worked, how much they’re probably sick of listening to me. But this is a team that didn’t play with each other, they played for each other, and that’s why we’re here.”
Rangers’ goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was good himself for two periods. But this time, the Bolts did not blink. Early in the third period, Alex Killorn scored a goal on a backhand shot. Then, 9 ½ minutes later, Ondrej Palat, on a nifty pass from Tyler Johnson, added an insurance goal, and the Lightning was on its way.
There were a lot of heroes for the Lightning, but none bigger than Bishop, who had worn doubts throughout the series. He now has won 52 times in this season, the most of any goalie in the NHL.
The Finals begin Wednesday night, with Game 2 set for Saturday. If Anaheim wins Game 7 in the West, the first two games will be in California. If Chicago wins, they would be in Tampa.
The Bolts were 2-0 this year against Anaheim, 1-1 against Chicago.