TAMPA, Fla. — They skated onto the ice Monday with "STANLEY CUP FINAL" written in blue paint on each side near the center and Madison Square Garden in their rear-view mirror. Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals featured the Tampa Bay Lightning at their best. They were suffocating and scary good on defense against the New York Rangers’ grizzled veterans.
They were rough and relentless against a skilled offensive attack. They were calm and collected when defending their net against a tested opponent who had history on their side.
Now the Lightning stand four games from penning history of their own, and defense will be the factor to carry them there if they earn a chance to clutch the Stanley Cup after a wild-and-formative ride. Rightfully so, ink will be spilled and space on the Internet will be taken to discuss Tampa Bay’s offensive prowess.
But as the Lightning showed in the New York series, as well as in dances against the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens, there’s depth to their personality. The "O" is for show, but their "D" can deliver the NHL’s greatest reward.
"I think we have a lot of confidence in our defensive game when we want to," Lightning center Tyler Johnson said at Amalie Arena. "It’s one of those things that, sometimes, it slips our mind. But when we have to buckle down and play a defensive game, I think we’re showing that we’re capable of doing that. I thought Game 7 in New York there was a complete game by our team. And everybody stepped up in a big situation."
It has become easy to see why the Stanley Cup Playoffs take on a different life than anything that comes before. Trends and assumptions from the regular season live a perilous existence in these black-and-blue weeks. In time, teams can redefine how we perceive them.
Tampa Bay has done so. Before the postseason, the Lightning were known as a high-flying offensive storm that averaged an NHL-best 3.16 goals per game, but they allowed 2.51 goals per game (19th in the league). Entering the Stanley Cup Final, they own a lower scoring average in the playoffs (2.75 goals per game), but they hold a better goals-against average (2.45) than their regular-season mark.
Clearly, there have been some nights in the postseason when the Lightning have needed to win with offensive muscle. An overtime victory in Game 3 against the Rangers comes to mind, when they posted six goals on 40 shots. But Tampa Bay looks like a team with a champion’s DNA when its defense wins the day.
Exhibit A: Game 7 against Detroit in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, when the Lightning shut out the Red Wings despite being outshot 31-17.
Exhibit B: Game 5 against New York, when the Lightning shut out the Rangers despite being outshot 26-22.
Exhibit C: Game 7 against New York, when the Lightning shut out the Rangers and limited them to a series-low 22 shots.
That angle of Tampa Bay’s personality will be necessary against the Chicago Blackhawks, who enter averaging an impressive 3.29 goals per game in the postseason. Yes, the Lightning can strike with flash and speed. But a methodical dissection of the opposition’s offense will create a greater impact.
"We have to realize that we have to worry about our net first and play defense," Lightning winger Ryan Callahan said. "We have the skill in this room, and we’ll have the chances to put the puck in the back of the net. You can see when we play that way, we’re a tough team to play against. And when you’ve got a guy like Bish (Ben Bishop) in the net, too, it makes it a lot easier. So I think we’ve got to take that Game 7, that Game 5 in New York and realize when we play that way, we’re a tough team."
The Blackhawks will be tough as well. Like the Lightning, they’ve shown an ability to burn rubber with their offensive engine. Chicago posted five goals in regulation twice against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Finals, and the Blackhawks scored four regulation goals on two other occasions in the series. They’ve kept scoreboard operators busy.
Expect the trend to continue. This series should be fun, entertaining and wide open. Who wouldn’t enjoy a few games with 5-4 or 6-5 decisions? The development would be as good for TV broadcasts and media narratives as it would be bad for the blood pressure of those with rooting interests.
Still, the side that shows the best defensive discipline will hold an advantage. The Lightning have stood tall on that end of the ice before. They must keep their attention to detail sharp.
"We’ve been talking about that for the last couple years: take care of our own net first and worry about the other one (later)," Bishop said. "We have a lot of offensive guys who can put the puck in the net, so it’s just a matter of buying into the same philosophy and watching out for your own net first."
Four games with that focus, and the Stanley Cup will be theirs.