TAMPA — Watching from above ice level gives Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman a helpless feeling.
Players prepare to take the ice, coaches game plan and scout the opponent looking for any advantage to exploit. Yzerman, meanwhile, sits around on game days just waiting for the action to start.
“It’s hard to sit and watch without having much of an impact this time of year,” Yzerman said.
Yzerman’s impact already has been made.
After Tuesday night’s series-clinching 4-1 win against Montreal, the Lightning are preparing to play in the Eastern Conference finals against the Rangers. Game 1 is Saturday in New York, It marks the second time in Yzerman’s five-year tenure the team reached the conference finals.
In 2011, Yzerman’s first season with the franchise, a team led by holdover franchise icons Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis and stop-gap veterans such as Dwayne Roloson and Sean Bergenheim reached Game 7 of the conference finals at Boston.
This time, the Lightning are tailor-made by Yzerman.
“Back in the 2011 playoffs, we were all relatively new and didn’t know what to expect from our team,” Yzerman said.
“It wasn’t as expected as it is here, where the expectations are a little higher,” Yzerman said in comparing 2011 to this year’s team. “So there is more of an expectation to win.”
Four years later, only two players — Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman — remain with the team.
Now, the roster is filled with draft picks such as Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, undrafted free-agent acquisitions such as Tyler Johnson, J.T. Brown and Andrej Sustr, along with trade or free-agent acquisitions such as Ben Bishop, Valtteri Filppula, Anton Stralman, Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle and Jason Garrison.
A young nucleus combined with a veteran presence put Tampa Bay into a position where many thought the team was ready to challenge for a Stanley Cup.
And with four more victories, it will do just that.
To get to this point, the Lightning grew up as a team in the past month. They learned to play in the playoffs and deal with all sorts of situations in the 13 games.
In the first round, the Lightning never led in the series against Detroit, which neutralized Tampa Bay’s speed and forced it to win Games 6 and 7 to advance. Against Montreal in the second round, the Lightning had to learn to play from ahead after jumping to a 3-0 series lead, but dropping two straight before clinching Tuesday in Game 6.
Even going back to last season, when Tampa Bay was swept from the first round by Montreal, the Lightning are now the sum of all their varied experiences.
“Experience after experience after experience these guys are learning, and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of,” head coach Jon Cooper said. “We learned a lesson last year.
“It was impressive how (Montreal) whipped our butts last year — and how were we going to learn from this? How were we going to be a Montreal and a team that goes to the playoffs every year, wins rounds and rises to the occasion? We want to be those guys, and for a month and two rounds right now, we are.’’
And there is optimism that bigger and better things await.
“Look at the guys that we brought in and the guys that we have been able to develop,” Stamkos said. “Sometimes it’s hard to go through that transition. As a player you want to win, but when you have guys who know what they are doing running the team, it pays off. We have the guys that we believe in and we are excited about this opportunity.”
According to Elias Sports Bureau, Bishop became the first goaltender to beat Montreal nine or more times in one season since Glenn Hall of Chicago went 9-7-4, including a playoff-round victory, in 1960-61. Bishop was 9-2-0 with a 1.67 goals-against average, .937 save percentage and one shutout against Montreal. ... Kucherov became the third Lightning player to record a multigoal game in a series-clinching victory, joining Ruslan Fedotenko (2004 vs. Calgary) and Bergenheim (2011 vs. Washington). ... Kucherov matched a franchise record with six goals in the series against Montreal, joining Fedotenko (2004 vs. Philadelphia) and Johnson (2015 vs. Detroit). ... The trio of Palat, Johnson and Kucherov has 17 of the Lightning’s 34 playoff goals.