SPORTS

Lightning have come a long way since being swept by Canadiens last year

04/30/2015 02:04 EDT | Updated 08/11/2015 07:59 EDT
DETROIT - Steven Stamkos got a long taste of playoff action in 2011 when the Tampa Bay Lightning reached the Eastern conference final.

Most of his teammates got a rude welcome to the NHL playoffs: a four-game first-round sweep at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens last season. Injuries to goaltender Ben Bishop and others contributed, but it was a weak showing for a young, talented group.

Coach Jon Cooper has been asked many times since what the Lightning learned from that sweep. He saw it in a Game 6 win over the Detroit Red Wings this week that helped Tampa Bay come back from multiple series deficits to advance to the second round.

"You have to go through it," Cooper said Monday night. "You can (take) the drivers' exam, pass that, it doesn't make you a good driver. You've still got to get behind the wheel. Last year's experience I think really helped us."

Just getting over the hump for one victory was progress. After picking up four, the Lightning face the Canadiens in a rematch, only this time Montreal has home ice at Bell Centre but Tampa Bay swept the five-game regular-season series.

Much has changed since that sweep. Beyond Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson blossoming and Stamkos and defenceman Victor Hedman picking up another year of experience, the Lightning signed centre Brian Boyle and defenceman Anton Stralman in the off-season and traded for defencemen Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn for some extra depth.

"You look at the lineup and a lot of guys have grown," said Johnson, who leads the Lightning with six playoff goals. "We brought in a lot of guys with experience and skill and a lot more leadership. I think this year's team's a lot different than last year's team."

Tampa Bay led the league in total and five-on-five goals, and Stamkos (43 in the regular season) didn't score once against Detroit.

But Cooper had no trouble noticing the differences between last year's playoffs and now, especially when the Lightning went into Joe Louis Arena and staved off elimination. The same instances that caused collapses in 2014 were gone.

"I just thought we didn't panic," Cooper said. "There wasn't a panic when we were (short-handed), there wasn't a panic when we were short five-on-three. The guys, deep down inside, they knew they could win this game."

Through the evolution of the series, the Lightning had to deal with Detroit's physicality, especially in the neutral zone. One of the league's most skilled teams had to adjust to having only a little bit of room to work with.

After getting shut out by Petr Mrazek in Game 5, Tampa Bay jumped out to a three-goal lead in Game 6 and never relinquished it. That might not have happened without last year's lesson.

"We just had a quiet calm about us the whole night," Cooper said. "There was no panic — never — on our bench."

Johnson can feel the difference even in his second playoff appearance. Tied for the NHL lead in goals through a round, the 24-year-old fully understands the value of playoff experience.

"You're put in different situations, stressful situations, to where whenever you get that experience and be able to deal with stuff and try to keep it even-keel," he said. ""Playoffs, it's a roller-coaster ride and you don't want to be a part of (the ups and downs). So you just want to stay on path."

The path leads to Bell Centre, right where the Lightning want to be to try to avenge last year's loss.

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