TAMPA, Fla. — There was a different energy Tuesday at Tampa Bay Times Forum. It was hard to miss. There was a buzz within the building.
Players skated with "STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS" etched on the ice in blue paint. There was about 10 times more media in the home dressing room than normal. Players and coach Jon Cooper sported new black hoodies.
Yes, this was a different time. It was an exciting time, too.
That was the theme heard over and over in the day before the Lightning host the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Players are more excited than nervous. They respect what the playoffs mean — a little more intensity, a little more bite near the boards — but they are aware enough not to let the moment overwhelm. The test will come after the lights dim and the crowd roars.
There’s no need to let invisible forces beat them.
"I’m more excited," said Lightning goaltender Anders Lindback, who’s expected to receive the start in Game 1. "It’s what you play for. It’s what you work hard for all year when you start to play hockey. I’m more excited than anything."
This is an exciting time for Tampa Bay. The Lightning are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and for just the second time in seven years. They earned 46 victories in the regular season, which tied a franchise record (2003-04 and 2010-11). Their 101 points rank third-most in team history.
Still, it’s hard to believe that they have reached this stage. Really, what else could have gone wrong? Close your eyes, point your finger over a piece of paper listing all the playoff teams, and you won’t land on a squad that dealt with more muck than these Lightning.
The word "wild" doesn’t do their winter justice.
But all that craziness is in the past. Starting Wednesday, this will be a different season. Cooper is no longer a rookie coach. The defense is no longer a major question. Steven Stamkos is no longer rehabbing from a broken right tibia. Marty St. Louis is no longer wearing the "C," but his trade to the New York Rangers seems like a lifetime ago.
"There’s no secret — everything is elevated," said Lightning winger Ryan Callahan, part of that trade with the Rangers on March 5. "A playoff game, everything means a little bit more. The 82 games for you is to get to this point. Now, you have a chance at competing at your ultimate goal."
Of course, that ultimate goal is the Stanley Cup. Even now, with the Lightning owning the Eastern Conference’s third-best point total — behind the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins — few will pick them to go far. It’s logical. Most who haven’t followed this team daily will assume Ben Bishop’s upper-body injury is too much of a blow. Most who haven’t followed this team daily will assume Canadiens goaltender Carey Price is too much of a daunting figure to overcome.
Both those predictions could become true. Then again, it’s hard to see everything playing out that way. So little separates Montreal and Tampa Bay that it’s difficult to picture this series being anything other than tight, competitive and memorable. Sometimes, things play out the way they should on paper.
That’s what anyone should want from a playoff series: Something that grabs your attention and refuses to let go. Montreal-Tampa Bay has that potential.
"We’re excited here," Lightning center Steven Stamkos said. "We had a pretty good-paced practice. I think guys understand that we’ve had a successful year, but this is when the true fun starts, the true work. So it’s an unbelievable experience."
There’s that word again, excited. It fits for the hours before Game 1, before the sweat begins, before plans are altered, before some blood is shed.
Come Tuesday night, "exciting" will become "exhilarating." This will be a test of will.
"I think the whole time I was definitely thinking, ‘This team has got it to make the playoffs,’ " Cooper said, when revisiting the regular season. "In all seriousness, I think we always felt we had it in us."
They did. The energy Tuesday said as much.
Nov. 12: Tampa Bay 2, Montreal 1 (shootout)
The Lightning won their first game without Stamkos, who broke his right tibia the day before in a loss to the Boston Bruins. Ryan Malone scored in the first period, and Daniel Briere answered for the Canadiens in the third. Valtteri Filppula scored the lone shootout goal to give the Lightning the victory.
Dec. 28: Montreal 2, Tampa Bay 1 (shootout)
Price had 23 saves for the Canadiens, who won by way of Tomas Plekanec’s goal in the second period and a shootout goal by Lars Eller. Marty St. Louis’ second-period goal was the lone score for the Lightning. Bishop had 20 saves.
Feb. 1: Tampa Bay 2, Montreal 1 (OT)
Nate Thompson’s overtime goal was the difference on a day when Bishop had 28 saves. Thompson opened scoring with a second-period goal before Briere answered by scoring in the third period. Price had 34 saves.
April 1: Tampa Bay 3, Montreal 1
The Lightning clinched a playoff berth with two goals in the third period, one from Tyler Johnson and another from Alex Killorn. Tampa Bay outshot Montreal 33-26, and Bishop had 25 saves. The Lightning’s victory snapped a five-game winning streak for the Canadiens from March 22-29.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
1: Times Tampa Bay has met Montreal in the Stanley Cup Playoffs before this season. The lone meeting happened in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2004, when the Lightning earned a sweep on their way to their lone Stanley Cup title. That year, Tampa Bay outscored Montreal a combined 14-5.
3: Games, out of four, in which the Lightning and Canadiens finished tied at 1 after regulation this season. No team has had a lead larger than two goals in their meetings this year.
10-7-4: Price’s career record against Tampa Bay. He owns a 2.32 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage in 21 starts against the Lightning. He has a 2.77 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage overall for his career.
1. Tampa Bay’s goaltending. Lindback and Kristers Gudlevskis did strong work after Bishop was sidelined with an upper-body injury April 8. Will it continue? Logic suggests Lindback, in particular, could come back down to Earth. He posted a 3-0-0 record with a 0.67 goals-against average, .975 save percentage and one shutout in a late stretch that helped Tampa Bay secure home-ice advantage. Still, he’s 8-12-2 with a 2.90 goals-against average and a .891 save percentage this season.
2. Offense, offense, offense. Will anyone break through? All the meetings between these two teams have been close, low-scoring grinds. If anyone can jump out early with a pair of goals, the spark could place the opponent in a deep hole. Scraping out goals will be key in this series.
3. Momentum. Tampa Bay has every reason to be confident heading into Game 1. Months ago, who expected the Lightning to be here anyway? They know the Canadiens are no pushover, but they’re 3-0-1 against Montreal this winter. They closed the regular season with four consecutive victories from April 8-13 and by winning seven of 10 from March 27-April 13.
THE LIGHTNING WILL ADVANCE IF …
1. Lindback plays well. There are no ands, ifs or buts about it. The goaltenders will decide this series. Lindback stunned almost everyone with how well he played in victories over the Toronto Maple Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals last week. On paper, Montreal has the edge in this category with Price between the posts. But Lindback enters the playoffs with no shortage of momentum. Potentially, that’s a large plus for Tampa Bay.
2. Their stars play like stars. That means big days for the usual suspects: Stamkos, Filppula, Victor Hedman. The players keep talking about it, and it’s true: Playoff hockey is a different animal. The intensity is ratcheted up. The hits are harder. More energy buzzes in the air. Tampa Bay’s stars can’t be overwhelmed by the moment. Big moments require bigger production.
3. They produce traffic near Price. Easier said than done. Price is one of the elite names at his position. The best way to beat him is to take away his eyes and clutter his comfort zone. The Lightning should have confidence that they have topped him multiple times this season. Still, nothing will come easy.
Are you ready? Prepared for a long, hard slog? Have the stamina for this series to go the distance?
It’s possible. Though the Lightning are undefeated against the Canadiens this season, nothing has been lopsided in the four matchups. The differences between these division rivals are miniscule. Expect the same in the coming days, both in Tampa and when the series shifts north of the border.
That means chances are there for someone to make a name for himself. Will Tyler Johnson or Ondrej Palat lift their profile even more? How about Radko Gudas? What about Teddy Purcell?
The big names must come to play. That’s a given. But other faces, perhaps future stars, could be born soon. This will be fun.