EDMONTON - The last time the Tampa Bay Lightning reached the Stanley Cup Final, Andrei Vasilevskiy was a rookie goalie who played when starter Ben Bishop was injured, the “Triplets” line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov led the offense and defenseman Victor Hedman was the most dominant player on the ice many nights.
Five years later, they’re on the verge of eliminating the New York Islanders and returning to the final because the core holdovers from that run and their new top center Brayden Point are playing some of the best hockey of their lives. Point has replaced Johnson on what coach Jon Cooper called “Triplets 2.0,” Vasilevskiy is a seasoned pro coming with a Vezina Trophy on his resume and Hedman is again a playoff MVP front-runner.
“I got more experience now,” Vasilevskiy said. “Confidence level, I think it’s on a good level. Obviously guys playing very well in front of me, and that gives me even more confidence. I was a rookie five years ago. Now I grew up, and I’m big boy now.”
Vasilevskiy and the Lightning’s big boys have performed like it. Even without injured captain Steven Stamkos, who is skating occasionally but doesn’t appear close to returning, Tampa Bay leads the Eastern Conference final 3-1 largely on the strength of its stars outplaying the Islanders’ stars.
Kucherov has a series-best nine points, and Point has three goals and four assists despite missing Game 3 with an injury. Blake Coleman, who along with Barclay Goodrow was a key trade deadline pickup, called Point “the most dangerous guy in the playoffs.”
Before the East final, that distinction could’ve gone to New York forward Mathew Barzal, who put up 13 points in his first 16 playoff games. Tampa Bay has completely shut down the line of Barzal, Anders Lee and Anthony Beauvillier, who have only produced one goal in the series.
“Tampa’s doing a really good job of limiting us, but the few that we get, just finding a way to put the puck in the net,” Lee said.
“We’d love to be producing more than we have and we understand that it’s a big part of our team as a lineup is everyone’s got to chip in in some form or fashion. I think our line had produced, has been producing, and it’s been a little dry of late.”
Barzal doesn’t think he and his linemates have created enough high-danger scoring chances. And when they have, Vasilevskiy has been there to make some big saves.
The Lightning have created plenty of chances, and it’s really not the fault of New York goalie Semyon Varlamov. Islanders coach Barry Trotz said Tampa Bay’s top line “has put a mark” on his team: six even-strength goals so far.
“They’re outstanding players,” Trotz said. “They can make plays, they go to the hard areas. Their windows of execution: They’ve got some guys that can pull the trigger pretty quick. They’re high level, elite players. You can’t give ’em an inch and we’ve given them too many inches.”
The Lightning are taking those inches, too. With all due respect to Johnson, who was moved to wing and has a reduced role compared to 2015, “Triplets 2.0” might be even better than the original trio.
“What makes these guys even more impressive this year is that this style of hockey is not sneaking up on anybody,” Cooper said. “Everybody kind of plays that possession game, and so for these guys, defenses have adapted, the league’s gotten younger since then. It’s probably a little quicker and for these guys still to be able to have that success playing that style is pretty impressive.”
Point is a question mark for Game 5 Tuesday night after getting tangled up with Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech in the third period Sunday afternoon. Tampa Bay’s only loss in the series came without Point, and there’s no way to overstate his importance.
“He’s a special talent,” Coleman said. “He tilts the ice every time he’s out there. Any time you have a guy like that in your lineup, you have a better chance of winning hockey games.”