Lightning turn doubters into believers with playoff berth

Lightning defenseman Eric Brewer (2) celebrates scoring a goal with right wing Teddy Purcell (16) and right wing Richard Panik (71) in Tuesday's win over Montreal.

Jeff Griffith/USA TODAY Sports

”Resilience” is used too often in sports. We use it to describe comeback stories. We use it to describe memorable rallies. We use it to describe stars who overcome adversity to fight, dig deep, and lift their teams to crowning achievements.

”Resilience” doesn’t always fit. Often, the word is misused, overblown, overstated. Not with the Tampa Bay Lightning, though. Not with this team.

Not with this year.

Many wrote off the Lightning before their season began in October. They were never supposed to threaten for a playoff berth. They were never supposed to clinch their first postseason spot since 2011, as they did Tuesday night with a 3-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens at Tampa Bay Times Forum, with help from losses by the Washington Capitals and New Jersey Devils. They were never supposed to be this strong, this good, this fast.

Jon Cooper was supposed to be too green as a coach. The goaltending with Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback was supposed to be too inconsistent.

The defense was supposed to be too much of a question. The Eastern Conference was supposed to be too elite.

”What you are really striving for is to win the Stanley Cup,” Cooper told reporters Tuesday. ”But you cannot win the Cup if you don’t get into the tournament.

Early, the playoffs seemed like a fantasy. Sure, the Lightning had Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis, a pair of the league’s best offensive threats. But there were supposed to be too many factors working against them: time, talent elsewhere, more. This wasn’t supposed to be their moment.

Well, it has arrived. The Lightning have proven doubters wrong time and time again throughout the past six months. Frankly, the questions seem ridiculous now, because they have lived through so much and yet scratched and clawed to see this day.

They have survived.

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Stamkos’ broken right tibia. Cooper’s maturation as a leader. Bishop’s rise as one of the league’s best goaltenders. The ascension of Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson as two of the league’s best rookies. St. Louis’ Team Canada drama. The St. Louis trade to the New York Rangers. Ryan Callahan’s acclimation.

The list is long.

A lesser team would have folded. A lesser team would have sunk.

”It has just been a fun year,” Johnson told reporters Tuesday. ”Clinching the playoffs tonight is obviously icing on the cake. Hopefully, we can continue going toward it.”

Yes, ”resilience” doesn’t always fit, but the word seems appropriate now. In recent weeks, there was little doubt the Lightning would make the playoffs. There were a few odd moments when they went without points in four of their first five games after the Olympic break. But they recovered to claim points in their next 11 from March 8-March 29, a run that showed grit and heart.

Everyone in Tampa Bay’s dressing room has grown. No one could have lived this season without being changed. It began with questions like, ”How will they move beyond Vinny Lecavalier?” and then ”How will they survive without Stamkos?” and then ”How will they handle life without St. Louis?” There were more unknowns than answers.

There are many faces to credit for the clarity that came in time. There’s Cooper, who should be considered for the Jack Adams Award. There are the rookies, whose seasoning has mirrored their team’s own. There’s Bishop, whose 37 victories are tied for second-most in the league, one behind the Colorado Avalanche’s Semyon Varlamov. Even Callahan, a late addition, has six goals and four assists since the Rangers traded him March 5.

This isn’t over. The Lightning will face more adversity in the playoffs. Not many outside Tampa will pick them to go far after April 13.

The ”Playoff Probabilities Report” on Hockey-Reference.com says they have a 13.4-percent chance to win the Eastern Conference. The same report gives them a 6.3-percent chance to claim the Stanley Cup.

The Boston Bruins are too good, some will say. So are the Pittsburgh Penguins, Canadiens and on and on. The Lightning are a cute story, these skeptics will point out. But they’re not worthy of hoisting that coveted Cup in the 10th-anniversary season of their lone title. The momentum will end.

But it seems unwise to doubt again. Call it resilience. Call it fight. Call it will. Whatever the choice, whatever the label, the Lightning have shown they’re worthy of respect.

”I had no idea we clinched a playoff spot,” Cooper said Tuesday. ”We were walking through and everybody was like, ‘Hey, you made the playoffs.’ I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ ”

Cooper may have been surprised, but the feeling should have been short-lived.

The time was coming.

Few thought so back in the fall. The Lightning turned doubters into believers.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.