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Friday, May 25, 2018
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The key to the Lightning’s success

This is quite the run the Lightning is on over the past five years.

A playoff appearance in 2014. A trip to the Stanley Cup final in 2015. A return to the Eastern Conference final in 2016. A near-miss of the postseason last season. And now back in the playoffs and doing well after winning the first round in five games.

Tampa Bay has played 52 playoff games over that span, winning 29. It has won six of nine series.

So, yes, it has been a heck of a run for this team.

Wait. Hold on a second. To say "this'' team isn't accurate.

It's not the same team at all.

We think of it as the same team throughout the run. Much of the core of the team has remained the same. You know the names: Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Anton Stralman, Ryan Callahan and Ondrej Palat. Those players have provided key roles for all or most of this impressive stretch. Jon Cooper has been the coach throughout.

You think of the Lightning, you think of those guys and it feels like not a lot has changed.

But this season's Lightning has benefitted from an underrated and seemingly subtle evolution. General manager Steve Yzerman has infused the team with a mixture of exciting youngsters and reliable veterans to make sure the Lightning keeps humming along as a Cup contender.

Yzerman has added scoring and grit, speed and toughness. He has complemented the Lightning's talented scorers up front and filled gaping holes on defense.

And he has done what might be the hardest thing to do in hockey: move on from one franchise goalie to another while not falling off the face of the hockey earth.

Along the way, he has said goodbye to not only important players, but popular ones: Brian Boyle, Valtteri Filppula, Jonathan Drouin, Jason Garrison and, most of all, Ben Bishop.

Speaking of Bishop, let's start with the most important position of all, goalie. And this was the most difficult decision of all as the Lightning took a leap of faith and went from Bishop to Andrei Vasilevskiy. So far, it has been so good as Vasilevskiy has proven to be an elite No. 1 goalie.

Next, the defense. Of the Lightning's six regular defensemen, only Hedman played in the 2014 playoffs. Stralman and Braydon Coburn joined the team the next season. And this season has seen three critical additions to the defense. That's half the corps.

Last summer, the Lightning added 19-year-old Mikhail Sergachev, acquiring him from Montreal for Drouin, who was supposed to be a part of the Lightning's core for the next decade.

The Lightning also added veteran Dan Girardi, a 33-year-old who seemed to be on his last legs with the Rangers. This season, his career has been revitalized in part because of how smartly the Lightning has used him. After averaging 20 minutes a game for most of his career, Girardi has played an average of 17:23 this season. That extra rest has kept him fresh, and in the first round, he was steady while playing 15:33 a game.

In the biggest addition of all on defense, the Lightning picked up Ryan McDonagh at the trade deadline, giving it someone who can play big minutes and against star players in the playoffs. He's a top-pair defenseman and those guys are awfully hard to find.

Then look up front as Yzerman's master plan of building the organization's farm system is coming to fruition.

Brayden Point is a 22-year-old 2014 third-round pick. He was drafted after the 2014 playoff appearance. Tony Cirelli was a third-round pick the next year who didn't become a regular until late this season. You can now find him on the ice in the final minutes of close playoff games.

Yanni Gourde came out of nowhere. He wasn't even drafted, but he's a scoring machine with 25 goals this season.

J.T. Miller came over from the Rangers in the McDonagh deal and has been more talented offensively than advertised.

Finally, at forward, the Lightning added in offseason free agency Chris Kunitz, a proven playoff veteran with four Stanley Cups on his resume. Kunitz can do it all. He can score, mix it up physically, kill penalties, play on the power play and even drop the gloves if needed.

So when you break down this roster, the players added over the past few months are almost as important as the players who have been here all along. In some cases, they are more important. This team isn't here without all those moves.

In the end, Lightning fans don't care if it's the same team or not. They simply call it "the Lightning."

They hope to call it something else in the very near future: Stanley Cup champions.

Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones.

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