Experience serves as the best education. With that in mind, the Lightning's top prospects are set to graduate the minor leagues magna cum laude, as Tampa Bay's top farm team will play for a championship for the second consecutive year. The Syracuse Crunch, the Lightning's affiliate in the American Hockey League, open play at home today in the best-of-seven Calder Cup final against the Grand Rapids Griffins, the top affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings. Many of the top prospects in the Tampa Bay organization play key roles for Syracuse this season, while eight current members of the Crunch won a championship last season with the Norfolk Admirals — Tampa Bay's AHL affiliate before switching to Syracuse.
Playing such important games not only gives players extra ice time to develop their skills, but it puts them in pressure situations that can't be replicated during practice or even a regular-season game. “The greatest experience a player can get is winning,'' said Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who led Norfolk to the title last year and coached Syracuse for most of this season before being promoted to Tampa Bay. “Regardless of what happens here at the end, getting to back-to-back finals is hard to do. When you get to the playoffs, this is truly big-boys hockey. I just think it puts our guys further ahead than other guys in the league. This is unbelievable education for our prospects.'' Norfolk finished last season on a record-shattering 28-game winning streak and went on to win the Calder Cup, dropping only three games in the postseason and ending the playoffs on a 10-game winning streak. This season, Syracuse captured the East Division title and finished as the third seed despite dealing with a handful of issues. The players moved to a new city, many of the team's top prospects were called up to Tampa and Rob Zettler assumed head-coaching duties when Cooper was promoted. In this year's postseason, the Crunch have won 11 games and lost one. “This kind of expedites their development, so from an organizational standpoint, that's one of the biggest benefits of having these long playoff runs,'' Syracuse general manager and Lightning assistant GM Julien BriseBois said. While Tyler Johnson, Radko Gudas, Mark Barberio, Ondrej Palat (league-best 20 points in 12 playoff games) and Richard Panik are some of the top Lightning prospects making a second run at a championship, Brett Connolly, J.T. Brown, Andrej Sustr, Vladislav Namestnikov and Dmitry Korobov are getting their first taste of postseason success. The long-term hope for the Lightning is that the experience of winning in the minor leagues translates into success at the NHL level. “I think it can (translate to NHL success), we have hope it will,” BriseBois said. “I look at Ottawa, and they had 10 players on their playoff roster that won a Calder Cup (in 2011) … to win, you need to have talent, which I think our young players have, and you need to learn how to win. So I think it bodes really well for the future.''