The Tampa Bay Lightning hadn't won a playoff series since their 2003-2004 Stanley Cup Championship and had gone three straight years without a postseason berth until this season. Brought on by extremely inconsistent goaltenders and defense that brought down the star power generated by cornerstone forwards Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, the drought of playoff success had knocked Tampa Bay well back into the realm of mediocrity.
But, this year, the Bolts have finally been able to put it together. The 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson, acquired from the New York Islanders mid-season as a desperation option, has been fantastic since the day he arrived in Tampa Bay.
The selections of now-top forward Steven Stamkos first overall in the 2008 draft and budding defenseman Victor Hedman second overall in the 2009 draft, the acquisitions of Mattias Ohlund, Eric Brewer, Pavel Kubina and Simon Gagne to solidify the defense (and, for Gagne, the offense), and the development of other unlikely candidates like Sean Bergenheim and Teddy Purcell have transformed the Lightning into a fearsome opponent.
As expected, the much-improved Bolts cruised to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, also managing to eliminate the division rival Carolina Hurricanes from their own playoff berth on the final day.
Since then though, Tampa Bay has become unstoppable. They won an insane 8-2 game in Pittsburgh to turn that series around, ended up taking the matchup in Game 7 and then, completely unexpectedly, swept the stacked Washington Capitals to extend their playoff winning streak to eight games heading into the next round.
What can the Lightning do to win their next two series just as they won their previous two and improve their claim to fame with two Cup championships in seven seasons? We'll take a glimpse into how they cruised so easily by the first two rounds and how they can keep that going.
Paired up along with Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, 35, and team captain Vincent Lecavalier, 31, composed a fearsome trio during the regular season. However, while the postseason pressure has affected Stamkos's play lately—well, compared to his normal play since he still has four goals and six points in two series— St. Louis and Lecavalier have stepped up and used their experience to take the lead of this team.
The two are first and second among all players in 2011 playoff scoring. St. Louis's 13 points, composed of six goals—three on the power play—and seven assists, leads all forwards, while Lecavalier's 12 points, with five goals, three of which were game winners, and seven assists, is tied for second among all league forwards.
Both players, in their younger years, were also key components of the Lightning's 2004 Cup title. Lecavalier, then just 24, had nine goals and seven assists in 23 games. Meanwhile, St. Louis, at his prime at that time at 28, had nine goals, including three on the powerplay, one shorthanded and three game- winners, and 15 assists for a team-high 24 points in 23 games.
For the Lightning to keep rolling to another Cup, they'll need both of these fellow stars to stay on top of their game as they lead the team on.
While St. Louis and Lecavalier will need to continue to lead the team, the Lightning will also need support from all players throughout the roster to win the Cup, just as they have done during the Conference Quarterfinals and Semifinals.
We mentioned that Lecavalier was tied for second among all NHL forwards in the playoffs with 12 points, but we left out that the player he's tied with is another Bolt; Steve Downie.
Downie, 24, had a jumpstart year in '09-'10 with 24 goals, but he fell back to just 10 this past season as injuries cost him 25 games. However, he has two goals and 10 assists already this postseason.
Tied with Downie for the team lead in assists (with 10) is Teddy Purcell. Purcell had never had more than four goals nor played more than 41 games in a single season until this past year, when he scored 17 goals (and 51 points) in 81 games played.
The undrafted winger has continued to be very productive as a playmaker in the playoffs, with two goals and 12 points to date.
Another unlikely Tampa Bay forward—Sean Bergenheim, this time—is tied for the league lead in playoff goals; he and Flyers' star Danny Briere each have seven of them.
Bergenheim is another player who posted a career high in points and goals this season, except he only had 29 and 15 of them, respectively. After spending the first five years of his career with the New York Islanders, where Bergenheim had only 40 goals, 80 points, and a minus-19 rating in 246 games, Bergenheim has proven to be a valuable addition in his first ever playoff appearance.
Scanning the rest of the Tampa Bay lineup, even more unexpected yet impressive performances stand out.
Dominic Moore, 30, a depth forward for whom Tampa Bay is his eight career team and his fifth in three seasons, had a career year with 18 goals this regular season and now has two goals, eight points and a plus-five rating in 11 games.
Trade deadline acquisition Eric Brewer, a defenseman, has six points, a team-leading 32 hits, a league-leading 43 blocked shots, and the highest average ice time on the Bolts (by a large margin) with over 26 minutes of TOI per game.
In total, 14 Lightning players have turned on the red light at least once in their two series and 18 have recorded at least one point. Despite their top-end-loaded reputation, it appears as if the Lightning might also be among the deepest teams, too.
In what may go down as one of the biggest "little trades" in Tampa Bay Lightning history, Dwayne Roloson has transformed this team into a real Cup contender. Roloson, who's been in the NHL since 1996 but has played for eight teams over that span and has only been a full-time starter for two seasons, was picked up last winter and helped the Bolts cruise to a middle-of-the-pack playoff seed in the East.
Still, he's managed to ramp up his game to an entirely different level during the postseason, and he's already managed to put the name "Roloson" right in the middle of the discussion surrounding the Conn Smythe Trophy, given to the playoff MVP.
The undrafted netminder is 8-3 with a league-leading 2.01 goals-against average (GAA)—this is after his 2.56 regular season GAA was his best since the lockout—and a .941 save percentage, also the best in the NHL this postseason.
Even with St. Louis and Lecavalier leading the way and the rest of the Bolts' forwards helping out plenty more, Roloson has been the biggest hero for Tampa Bay and perhaps of the entire playoffs so far.
However, two more jaw-dropping series from the "Old One" will be needed to fulfill the Lightning's hopes.
Both special teams units have come up big when they needed to in the Lightning's disposal of the Penguins and Capitals.
The penalty kill has been a key part in in Tampa's ability to not let their few mistakes cost them. The unit is currently second among all playoff teams in penalty kill percentage—first place belongs to now-eliminated Montreal, who was a perfect 21-for-21 against the Bruins.
At 94.4 percent overall, the PK has only allowed three goals on a league-high 54 surrendered man advantages and is a spotless 36-for-36 away from home.
The powerplay has also done their job. They lead the NHL in conversions with 12 during the course of the playoffs, beating out second-place Anaheim, ousted in Round 1, by a decisive margin of four goals, and are third in conversion ratio at 26.7 percent.
In keeping with the penalty kill's momentum-killing perfect road mark and the team's 5-1 record away from the Forum, the power play has also been on the money outside of Tampa Bay, going 8-for-25 in the Consol Energy Center and Verizon Center combined.
While they haven't got much of the glory for the two series victories when compared to Roloson and the likes, the penalty kill and power play groupings for Tampa Bay have been key factors in their earlier victories and will need to stay just as hot if the Bolts want to go all the way.
Despite all of the individual superstars that are highlighting the playoffs for the Lightning, it's the little things that they're doing that are truly making the difference.
First of all, they are passing first to set up good opportunities and then shooting the puck, instead of just throwing everything towards the net; a strategy that wouldn't have worked too well against talented goaltenders like Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury and Washington's Michal Neuvirth.
Oddly enough, Tampa Bay is first among all 16 playoff teams in goals per game—a remarkable 3.46 mark—and last in shots per game at just 26.7, on average, each match (compare that to San Jose's 38.9 shots per game average)!
Furthermore, led by the Eric Brewer's example, Tampa Bay is first in the NHL during the playoffs in blocked shots with 233 total - over 60 more than second place San Jose's mark. You think that's skewed by the Lightning's extra games played? Not so; they're first in blocked shots per game, too.
Lastly, the Lightning have done something against two opponents who may arguably be the toughest teams to do this against: they've held onto their leads. They are 4-0 when leading after the first period, 6-0 when ahead at the second intermission, and 7-0 when scoring first.
That means that the Bolts have won all but one of their eight victories because they drew first blood.
However, maintaining these advantages will get even tougher as the Cup grows closer, the competition grows fiercer, and the opponents grow even better, just like blocking shots and getting passes through will as well.
For the Lightning to succeed as the Cinderella of 2011, unlike Philadelphia of 2010 and Edmonton of 2006, they'll need all of these factors to hold up for two more series and, hopefully, eight more wins of playoff action.
They'll need to rely on their veterans, get contributions from everyone, keep building upon Roloson's mastery and hold off some mighty dangerous power play teams and convert on the man advantages of their own.
For the Tampa Bay Lightning to skate away as the Stanley Cup Champions of 2011, they'll need the puzzle to completely fall into place. They'll need the entire team to step up another step, to turn it up another notch, to shine like they never have before on the biggest stage in the world.
Can they do it?