Tampa Bay Lightning: The Night The Team Grew Up


There comes a moment in everyone’s life when they’re forced to swallow certain harsh realities about the world.  Maybe, for you, when you were a child, you came downstairs at just the wrong moment one fateful holiday night and found yourself face to face with falsehoods you’d been fed about illogical worldwide break-and-enters, committed annually by a morbidly obese geriatric with the craziest form of transportation you’d ever heard of.  (Or maybe, for you, it was more about rabbits in April.)

That same thing, figuratively, happened to the Tampa Bay Lightning one night in their series against the Detroit Red Wings.  You might think it happened in Game 7, but by that time the Bolts’ wide-eyed innocence was already a goner.  It happened in Game 6.  That was the night our cute little Lightning boys grew into a big nasty hockey team of men.

The Tampa Bay Lightning learned last year, against the Montreal Canadiens, that the playoffs are a whole new can of animal worms.  They came out of that series with a newfound understanding that, in the playoffs, the intensity notches up.  The speed with which the game is played goes off the charts.  And they came into this post-season prepared for that.

What they were not prepared for was Mike Babcock.  Babcock, the long-time Detroit Red Wings coach, saw his team badly outplayed in the first two games of the series.  The Red Wings couldn’t handle the speed the Lightning were bringing to the table.  So he made a key adjustment.

Now, a lot of this is going to sound like an admonishment of Babcock and his style, but it’s not.  I want to get that out of the way early.  Babcock deserves the highest of praise for the tactics he employed.

The Red Wings have long been known as the clutchiest and grabbiest team in the NHL, but after two poor showings against the Lightning (the Wings were lucky to come out of those first two games tied 1-1 with the Bolts), Babcock had his team elevate their clutch and grab game from the simple “subtle interference” that he’s become synonymous with, to an all-out Dead Puck Era manifesto.

Tyler Johnson’s heroics aside, Games 3, 4, and 5 had the Bolts frustrated.  Babcock, by upping the ante on obstruction against everyone but the puck carrier, had effectively neutralized the team’s main weapon—their speed.  This is why Mike Babcock’s a hockey genius, and also why he’s going to become the highest paid coach in hockey history next year.

For those unfamiliar with obstruction interference, it looks a little like this: Player A and Player B are skating up the ice, following the play.  Neither have the puck.  Player A is beginning to pull away from Player B, so Player B gives him a friendly tug on the jersey/stick/anything-he-can-get-hold-of to slow Player A down.

Apply this to situations where Player A is trying to forecheck, and you can understand why  Babcock was giving the Lightning fits.

Jon Cooper mentioned the Wings’ interference twice in to the press, saying the Bolts were going to have to find a way to fight through it.  And they did find a way.  In Game 6.

What it boils down to is they gave as good as they got.  In fact, if anything, Game 6 saw the Bolts running more interference than the Wings.  They hooked and held with the best of ’em, they tripped and scissor-legged and cross-checked and slashed and jabbed and facewashed.

To be blunt, they played dirty.  Maybe you don’t want to believe that.  Maybe you want to believe the Lightning are morally pristine by all hockey measures and would never stoop so low to play the Wings’ game, but they did.

They did it because they’d learned their second valuable lesson about the playoffs: the only rules that matter are the rules the referees choose to enforce, and if you’re not taking advantage of that then the other team is going to take advantage of you.

The Lightning learned that lesson the hard way, but it was an important lesson to learn.  Ugly as it may be.  And they couldn’t have asked for a better first round opponent to teach it to them.  Think of it like this: Mike Babcock and the Wings just put the Lightning through an advanced course in Playoff Hockey.

The Bolts barely passed, but they passed with the knowledge that they can play to a different level than they themselves probably knew—they can dig deeper, fight harder.

They grew up.  They accepted that this is the reality of playoff hockey, they adjusted, and succeeded.  And now they move on to face the Montreal Canadiens like a boy scout with a shiny new badge for his latest learned skill.

Even though, ironically, the exact thing they learned is, regardless of skill, playing like a boy scout won’t get you anywhere this time of year.

Next: Tampa Bay Lightning Round 2 Schedule Announced

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