TAMPA, Fla. -- Prior to the start of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, players such as Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman -- key contributors for the Tampa Bay Lightning -- had never experienced a playoff game in the NHL.
Yet, here are the Lightning, the fifth-place finisher in the Eastern Conference, with a 3-0 lead in the second round against the Washington Capitals, perhaps just hours away from pulling to within eight victories of a Stanley Cup championship.
One has to wonder if nerves will be running through the veins of Stamkos and Hedman on Wednesday night, when the puck drops for Game 4 at the St. Pete Times Forum. Stamkos, whose highlight-reel tally erased a 3-2 deficit less than six minutes into the third period on Tuesday, says he's been relying on veterans like captain Vincent Lecavalier and alternate captain Martin St. Louis to remain level-headed.
"The coaching staff certainly helps and the veteran players of this team have been in every single situation possible," Stamkos said Wednesday morning. "They know how to react and that message is relayed through the team.
"For a lot of us, it was our first playoff experience. But we've had to learn very quickly and that's been reiterated a lot through the playoffs. Having that veteran leadership and the coaching staff with the knowledge … obviously, a guy like (GM) Steve Yzerman as well, who's won tons of championships, it's just a common effect that trickles down to everyone."
Hedman has contributed in this series as well, albeit more quietly. The 6-foot-6, 229-pound blueliner received nearly 20 minutes in ice time on Tuesday night and picked up the lone assist on Stamkos' game-tying tally. The No. 2 pick from the 2009 Entry Draft has 3 assists in 10 postseason games.
"I've been impressed with him since I got here," said defenseman Eric Brewer, who is participating in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in eight years. "He's a big man who skates real well. The more games he plays, the better he's going to be. Playing defense is incredibly difficult because you're skating the wrong way, obviously, but I don't know if people really understand how difficult it is. He's done a real good job of it."
Brewer is one of several players Hedman is relying on this time of year. Being surrounded by so many veterans certainly has been beneficial to the Swedish blueliner.
"You have experienced guys that you listen to and pay attention to," Hedman said. "It's your first playoff experience and being up three games, you have to stay even keel. It's a big thing for me to really rely on those experienced guys and listen to them. It hasn't been a problem for me to really refocus and I'm really excited about tonight."
Indeed, this is a phenomenal young core the Lightning have built over the past couple of years. Stamkos has racked up 186 points over the past two regular seasons, while Hedman is just scratching the surface of the player fans are going to see in the future. Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher has been pleased with their play in the postseason.
"Their games are getting better and better," Boucher said of Stamkos and Hedman. "They seem to be a lot more assertive. I like the fact that (Hedman's) keeping his game simple. That means he's matured. That's impressive."
For Lecavalier and St. Louis, it must be reminiscent of the 2003 postseason, when they were young players who had never participated in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They used that experience as a tool the following year, when they hoisted the franchise's first Stanley Cup.
But as long as the Lightning continue to buy into Boucher's system and do the things that are required of them to be successful, Lecavalier doesn't see Stamkos' and Hedman's inexperience as a reason for concern.
"When we won the Cup, there was a lot of guys that never won the Cup," Lecavalier said. "I don't really think it matters. They're here and they're determined. They've been in playoffs in juniors and probably Heddy in Swedish leagues. I just think it's how you play as a team and you handle things. These guys obviously handle it very well. They've been playing great for us."
They certainly did in the third period on Tuesday night, when the Lightning once again outplayed Washington over the final 20 minutes. After being outshot 27-15 through the first two periods, the Lightning tripled the Caps' output in the third, outshooting them 15-5.
But now that Washington finds itself playing with its season on the line, Stamkos and Hedman expect to see a tantalizing 60-minute effort from the Caps that perhaps hasn't been executed through the first three games of this series.
"We're probably going to get their best game," Stamkos said. "We know what it's like to have our backs against the wall. We were like that for three games and we won all three. By no means is this series over yet. We've put ourselves in a good position, but they're going to come out firing on all cylinders."
"This is going to be a big game tonight," Hedman said. "We know this is going to be a Game 7 for them. We've been in the same situation. We know what they're thinking and what they're preparing for. We have to put all the wins behind us and focus for tonight."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL