BOSTON -- For three years the Tampa Bay Lightning languished outside the postseason picture and one, simple statistic was the biggest reason amongst many others for a franchise in turmoil -- goals against.
The Lightning finished in the bottom four of the NHL in goals against each year, yielding an average of 3.20 goals per game during the three-year span. How the franchise has risen from off-ice tumult to stability in such a short span has mirrored the on-ice ability to prevent goals, and in turn helped the Lightning move to within seven victories of claiming the Stanley Cup.
There are many reasons why goal prevention has become such a strength for the Lightning, and why the club has improved so dramatically -- not just from last season but from the start of this one as well.
"It is tough to compare the last couple of years to this year," Steven Stamkos said. "We've had so many changes. We had brand new structure, brand new players, the coaching staff -- everything is different. It wouldn't be fair to compare that, but from Day One [of this season] to here, it is almost night and day. It is the same structure, but it is about us getting better at it each and every day."
Added Steve Downie: "It is night and day here from last year. New players, new coaches, new GM -- right from the top with a new owner it is a first-class organization now and I think players respect that and are buying into that."
So to recap, where the Lightning were from last year to this year is "night and day" and where the team is now from where it was in September is also "night and day." How does something like that transpire? Well, here's a few reasons:
Everything in Tampa Bay starts with new owner Jeff Vinik, new general manager Steve Yzerman and new coach Guy Boucher. Any system, any role for a player starts with acceptance, and the guys in the Lightning dressing room almost sound like robots with the way they praise "Mr. Vinik" and "Mr. Yzerman" for how they laid the groundwork before the season even started.
When Boucher asks the players to tweak something or try something different, they do it. When Yzerman makes a personnel move, the players believe he has made the team better.
"Everybody that has come in has been a great person and a great hockey mind and I think they just hold everybody accountable and demand the best," Adam Hall said. "I think everyone was aware from the start -- there is going to take a lot of enthusiasm and excitement coming into the program."
Boucher's approach is demanding, whether it is deploying his defensive system or how he expects players to accept roles and be responsible defensively. While other teams have optional practices, the Lightning rarely do. When they do practice, the workouts are rarely short and there is plenty of physical contact and instruction.
Another group of veterans may have bristled as some of Boucher's techniques or demands, but the guys who have been in Tampa, Fla., the past few years were sick of the losing and the turmoil. The word "structure" is a popular one in the Tampa Bay dressing room, and they aren't just talking about a defensive system. This group of players was in desperate need of structure -- making Boucher a perfect fit.
"I think everyone wants to win so everyone has bought in," Ryan Malone said. "We're willing to do whatever it takes. I think that is the biggest thing. The guys who have been a couple years without making the playoffs and some of us have tasted it before and want to get back because this is the fun time of year. Right now we're coming together as a group."
Maybe not since the New Jersey Devils in the mid-1990s has a team's defensive system earned so much publicity. The phrase "1-3-1" is one usually reserved for zone defenses in basketball, but Boucher has made it a popular bit of hockey jargon in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The transformation of Tampa Bay into a defensive juggernaut did not happen right away. There were plenty of long nights during the regular season, and the team still allowed 2.85 goals per game this year. That's an improvement, but not the drastic leap the Lightning have taken in this postseason.
"We went through our ups and downs," Mike Lundin said. "We went through stretches where we won a bunch in a row and we were all like, 'OK, we're getting this,' and then all of a sudden we'd lose a couple or go up and down and it would be like, 'OK, maybe we don't quite have it yet.' There was a lot of that. I think every time we went down, we learned something new and we've been able to get higher the next time. The longer the season has gone on the more we've been able to put it all together and really stick to that system."
Added Downie: "I think we learned a lot over the past four or five months, but that's our coaches. They're making us pay attention to details. That's a big key -- once guys started paying attention to the little details and the sacrifices the team has to have to do well -- that's what's happening."
Part of Tampa Bay's problem early in the season wasn't just that the team was trying to learn the ins and outs of Boucher's system. It was the goaltending. Dan Ellis and Mike Smith had the two worst save percentages of qualified goaltenders on January 1 -- the day Yzerman traded for Roloson.
He was an immediate upgrade at the position and the psychological boost for the other players was immense. Tampa Bay was competing with Washington for first place in the Southeast Division, but the Capitals had drubbed them 6-0 and 6-4 in the first two meetings before January 1.
Roloson shutout the Capitals in his first two appearances against them, and the message was clear -- Tampa Bay was going to be a different team with him in net.
"[Roloson] has been incredible," Hall said. "Obviously he's a great veteran and brings a ton of experience to the table. He just has a calming effect in the locker room and he's just an intelligent hockey mind as well. If he happens to see something during the play, whether it is special teams or even strength or whenever, he reads the game so well. He'll bring things up in between periods or during practices -- even after practice he'll be helping guys with advice. He's seen it all and he's such a great guy to have as part of the team."
The leadership from the 41-year-old goaltender is a common theme when other Lightning players are asked of Roloson's contributions, but so too when the veteran defenseman Brewer is brought up. Added at the trade deadline, Brewer became the final piece of the goal prevention puzzle. He has logged big minutes and improved the depth of the defense corps tremendously.
Paired with Mattias Ohlund, Brewer has become the team's go-to shutdown defenseman while also playing on the No. 1 power-play unit.
"We needed somebody that was going to be able to log a lot of minutes, have the speed to play against top lines that are fast, have the size to play against bigger lines, be able to play in the power play and the penalty kill and have leadership" Boucher said. "So if you put that down as a shopping list, that's a pretty big shopping list.
"He's got incredible leadership, a very assertive guy. He's not afraid to talk in meetings. When you pass by as a coach and you hear guys like that taking hold of a portion of your room or groups, you know your leadership has grown with a guy like that. Him coupled with Roloson have definitely had an impact on our team and sometimes it is not about Xs and Os at all. It just the presence and the confidence and the experience. That was a void we had. Even though we were first in our division for some point, we knew what our weaknesses were and we filled a lot of those weaknesses."
Combine all of these factors -- the new structure both on and off the ice, the new goaltender, the new No. 1 defenseman -- and Tampa Bay is transformed. The Lightning lead the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs in goals against at 2.17 per game. Roloson is tops in goals-against average and save percentage.
It goes beyond the numbers too -- Tampa Bay is now a team that looks comfortable and in control without the puck. While the Lightning had lots of skill players in previous seasons, they needed the puck to be successful. Boucher's system emphasizes creating turnovers and counterattacking, and the Lightning have learned to be confident even when the other team is controlling the puck and the territorial advantage.
"It is all of those things put together," Lundin said. "If we were missing any one of them we probably wouldn't be where we are right now. From what I've seen from the past few years, this year the biggest thing has been the structure of everything -- the organization, the team and then the system on the ice. It has really come together this year, and all around everyone knows their role, how to act in every situation and how to play."
Added Hall: "I think it speaks well of the people Mr. Vinnik has hired and put into place. Everyone in this organization has a lot of fun coming to the rink. We know it is not going to be easy, but we have great teachers and great communicators as coaches and I think everyone knows not to be shy because we want to get better. For whatever reason, it has really jelled together nicely and we've developed great chemistry over the course of the year."