What if we told you before the Stanley Cup playoffs that the Tampa Bay Lightning would be in the Eastern Conference final despite No. 1 center Steven Stamkos and top-pairing defenseman Anton Stralman not playing a single minute over the first two rounds?
You probably would’ve called us crazy.
But that’s where the Lightning find themselves after dispatching the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders in five games each.
So, what’s been the key to Tampa Bay’s success without two of its best players? A few things, but we should start with the “Triplets” line, which consists of young forwards Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov.
This trio is driving puck possession at a staggering rate at 5-on-5 with a 58.91 Corsi For percentage as a unit. It’s also generating scoring chances and goals. Here are their scoring totals in all situations, via War on Ice:
It’s not like the Triplets are dining out on the power play, either. More than half of all their points were tallied during 5-on-5 play.
Tampa Bay also is receiving scoring production from its blue line. Victor Hedman, to no one’s surprise, is excelling in the offensive zone. He has tallied nine points (four goals, five assists) in 10 games, while Jason Garrison has five points (one goal, four assists) in that span.
We haven’t even talked about former No. 3 overall draft pick Jonathan Drouin’s insertion into the lineup, and the playmaking wizardry he’s displayed.
This is the kind of scoring depth that must shine when an elite goal scorer such as Stamkos is out of the lineup. But even if he doesn’t return for the conference finals, the Lightning still have a good chance to win the Prince of Wales Trophy because their defense and goaltending has been solid as well.
Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop has propelled the Lightning to a .942 save percentage during 5-on-5 play, the third-highest mark of the eight second-round clubs. From a defensive standpoint, Tampa Bay is controlling more than 50 percent of all shot attempts and more than 50 percent of all scoring chances at 5-on-5.
The Lightning are shutting down the opponents’ best forwards, too. Islanders captain and No. 1 center John Tavares tallied a goal and an assist in New York’s Game 1 win, but he was held scoreless in the next four games, all Lightning victories. Tampa Bay also held Red Wings forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, two likely Hall of Famers, to just a single point combined in Round 1.
Very few people gave Tampa Bay much of a chance to make a deep playoff run when the injuries started to pile up. But the Lightning came within a game of winning the Stanley Cup last season, so they know how hard it is to reach the championship series.
This experience, along with their talent, depth, goaltending and brilliant coaching from Jon Cooper, give them an excellent chance to return to the Cup Final, even if Stamkos and Stralman don’t return before June.
Thumbnail photo via Marc DesRosiers/USA TODAY Sports Images