Lightning's Young Stars Breaking Through At Biggest Time

“Every team is dealing with something and that’s part of what makes it difficult to win championships. For us it’s an opportunity for other players and something we’re going to have to rally around and do our best to survive. [First] to make the playoffs and then to survive until we start getting guys back.”
Steve Yzerman, Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager

Spoken like the captain that he was for 18 seasons in the city that adopted him for 23 years in Detroit. Steve Yzerman said this when the captain of his current Tampa Bay Lightning club, Steven Stamkos, went down with a blood clot diagnosis. In addition to him, arguably the best defenseman on the team, Anton Stralman, fell as well due to a broken fibula that would keep him out for the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, if the Lightning were to get that far.

They have, dispatching the aforementioned Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders in five games each. The stars? 22-year old Nikita Kucherov. Nine goals through the ten games. 26-year old Alex Killorn, who chipped in with three goals (1 GWG) and nine points. 25-year old Tyler Johnson, who lit it up again with four goals and 13 points. 25-year old defenseman Victor Hedman, who posted just one assist in the Detroit series, crushed the Isles with four goals and eight points. 25-year old Ondrej Palat, who scored just two goals but had a crucial game winner in the Detroit series to put the Bolts up three games to one. Last but not least, 21-year old Jonathan Drouin, who was in the middle of a well-documented controversy with the organization in January with his agent requesting a trade, responded with a goal in each of the final two regular season games, a game-winning goal in the Islanders series, and nine points in ten games.

Their youth got them to this point, and the storyline has been no different in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final.

12:45 into the first game, goaltender Ben Bishop, arguably the backbone of the Lightning all season long (led NHL in GAA and save percentage), suffered a knee injury that forced him onto a stretcher. The Vezina nominee was relieved and 21-year old Andrei Vasilevskiy entered the fray. All he did was win that game and three of five, putting the team one win away from getting back to the Stanley Cup Final and netting two more wins that were left on the table last season. Vasilevskiy for his age, however, has shown strong poise and has felt the pressure of a playoff atmosphere in his KHL days as a teenager. Through the series, he’s posted a .925 save percentage with three 35+ save efforts.

Down two games to one in their building, the Lightning called on their experience, whether it be from the Calder Cup days in Norfolk and Syracuse, or the run to the Final last season. Quiet for the first three games combining for a couple goals and four points, Johnson, Killorn, and Kucherov along with others have responded in the last two victories and have displayed their resiliency.┬áKillorn┬átallied two assists in the series-tying game and scored the goal that got the Lightning going against Marc-Andre Fleury and the Pittsburgh Penguins in their comeback. All Johnson has done is score both game-winning goals, going to the net and getting rewarded for the second one in Game 5’s overtime. Kucherov set up Johnson’s winner in Game 4 and scored two goals in Game 5, each tying the game. In the Detroit series, he scored the first goal of the game three times, potted the game tying goal in the third period twice against the Islanders, and has brought his heroics to the Conference Final.

Those are just part of the contributions. The aforementioned Drouin hasn’t been a slouch, scoring three goals in the series (game-tying goal in Game 2) and at times looking like he controlled the ice with his silky skating and stick work. He’s been below 14:30 of ice time once all playoffs long after spending much of the season shuffling from line-to-line. Yzerman not budging at the trade deadline has paid off tremendously and the Lightning look like they have a pretty solid “Plan B” if Stamkos bolts (no pun intended).┬áPalat has emerged from a relatively quiet ten-game stretch, scoring two goals in the series (one game winner), tallying a point in his last three. He seems like the triplet that does not get the credit he deserves with the play of Johnson and Kucherov overshadowing him, but he has shown that he is still a tremendous piece to the puzzle for Cooper’s group. Hedman has had to duel with Kris Letang and has performed admirably with four assists. 25-year old Andrej Sustr deserves an honorable mention, as he has been an unsung hero in the last two wins scoring a goal and pinching in at the right time twice in Game 5 on Kucherov’s first game-tying goal and Johnson’s game-winner where he started the play on a dump-in.

“I think our guys are doing a heck of a job this year handling all sorts of situations, whether it’s injuries, being down, being up, just the list goes on. The guys have really matured as a group on how to win hockey games.”
Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning Head Coach

Now, after finding themselves in a rare adverse situation in these playoffs, they now have a game to play at home up three games to two in the series with a chance to close it out in front of the Lightning faithful.

They’ve made good on the first two attempts, count on the young legs to play a huge part if they want to make it three.

Quotes courtesy of NHL.com and Sportstalk Florida
Stats courtesy of NHL.com, ESPN.com
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