Identity. It’s more than a word in the world of sports. While every team has an identity, it can change in the blink of an eye. All it takes is one bad game, one injury or even just one shot for a team’s identity to change. For the Lightning, their identity change happened with 39 seconds left on the clock in Game 3 when Nikita Kucherov tied a game in which the Islanders fully outplayed the Lightning for 45 of 60 minutes. But in that one shot the Lightning went from being the injured team with no hope of success in the playoffs, to becoming something new entirely… They became the resilient team.
The Resilient Identity
Two years ago, a young Lightning team was swept out of the playoffs in quick fashion by the Montreal Canadiens. For many of the Lightning players, that was their first playoff series. They were the upstarts — the kids who weren’t supposed to be there — and they played like it. They played hard but they were lacking the experience and grind to fight their way back.
Last year a bolstered Lightning team brought the league’s top offense into the playoffs and made that into their identity. If you could slow down their scoring, you had a real chance at beating them. It wasn’t a team built for a comeback, but a team built to hit you fast and often.
Leading up to the 2016 playoffs, the Lightning’s only identity was that of confusion and injuries. Without Stamkos and Stralman, the team that went to the Stanley Cup Final looked like a favorite for an early exit. Instead the Lightning eliminated both the Red Wings and Islanders in quick 4-1 series. They weren’t always pretty wins for the Bolts, but they were those close one goal games that the team has always struggled with in the past. The team that was once defined by their offensive prowess now found themselves identifying more with their defensive play than any other.
The New Roles
Jon Cooper has always preached defensive play, and this year really showed the fruits of this philosophy. The Lightning were 5th in goals against this season, a marked improvement from 11th one year ago. In the playoffs they have been even better at keeping scoring low, giving up less than two goals in eight of ten games this playoffs.
Even though they aren’t scoring like they used to, they haven’t needed the support. The Lightning are keeping games close and scoring at opportune times to get their victories. In short, they are playing like a whole new team… a resilient team who is not afraid of losing a star player or giving up a goal. They are a team who believes in their experience and in their new identity.
Time will tell if they are able to withstand the Eastern Conference Finals, but even to make it this far while lacking key players is an impressive feat for the Lightning.