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Young Lightning team still learning how to win in playoffs

MONTREAL -- A year ago, Patrick Roy unleashed an emotional and fascinating rant, part history lesson and part cover for his young Colorado Avalanche team coming under fire during their first-round series against the Minnesota Wild.

But his comments from that day hit home when it comes to the incredibly talented Tampa Bay Lightning and their learning curve as they make their way through these playoffs -- and eventually make their way, whether it's this season or beyond, to a Stanley Cup championship.

Roy, a year ago, reminded people on hand -- and I was one of them -- that the Nordiques-turned-Avs had some growing pains before becoming Stanley Cup champions in Denver.

"In Quebec, they had a bumpy road," Roy said.

"Remember in '93 ... they got beat by Montreal in six games. The following year they missed the playoffs."

Roy wouldn't even know how ironic -- or prophetic -- that comment would be, as his young Avs missed the playoffs this season. A lesson learned.

But he talked that day about how young teams need to take their lumps before developing into true contenders.

"I understand we want to fast-track, I understand we want to be Stanley Cup contenders, but it's a learning process. ... It's tough to win the Stanley Cup," Roy said.

It is so darn interesting to see how young, rising teams absorb their education along the way and figure out how to apply those lessons. Sidney Crosby got his Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup finals in his third season in the league and won the Cup the following season. Jonathan Toews led his Blackhawks to the Cup in his third season. Drew Doughty was in the fourth season of his NHL career when the Los Angeles Kings won the first of their two Cups.

Of course, not every rising team figures it out that quickly, or at all. The Washington Capitals are a decade into the Alex Ovechkin era and perhaps now, after so many years of playoff failure, this might finally be their year to get somewhere in the playoffs. The St. Louis Blues are a half-decade into their attempt to climb the playoff ladder; still no success.

Lightning superstar captain Steven Stamkos is in his seventh NHL season, but the entry point of his current ensemble is really just in the second season of their rise, the second full season under head coach Jon Cooper, a team loaded with young studs Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov.

This version of the Lightning, rebuilt from top to bottom by general manager Steve Yzerman, is just in the infancy of its climb to the top.

They made the playoffs last season only to be swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round. This season they got quite the scare, dropping behind 3-2 in the opening round to a more savvy Detroit Red Wings team before pulling out the series comeback.

As they come off two lackluster efforts at home in Games 3 and 4, this young Lightning team must take in the education they're getting.

"They had the heartache of last year and they learned from that," Lightning winger Brenden Morrow, at 36 the oldest player on the team, told ESPN.com Friday after the team arrived in Montreal. "But you almost have to learn desperation too, a little bit. And Montreal certainly played like the desperate team the last two games. When you're up 3-0, it's one thing to bring intensity to the game or emotion, but it's another to try and manufacture that desperation. And maybe that's something right now we're learning or struggling with. Just how to manufacture it when you're not the desperate team."

Morrow reached the Stanley Cup finals in his very first season in 1999-2000 with the Dallas Stars and has played in 103 career playoff games. He's the graybeard on a team full of babes now. Like everyone else, he sees oodles and oodles of talent, but just like all the good teams over the years, they have to go through the playoff learning curve.

"All the scar tissue that you've had in the past, it helps [to understand]," Morrow said with a chuckle. "There's something to also be said about being young and not having those scars, and just being naïve when it comes to nerves at this time of year. But knowing how hard it is to close out a series, that may be something that a veteran guy has been through and may understand a little bit better."

The Lightning are in a great spot, up 3-1 in the series heading into Game 5 at the Bell Centre on Saturday night. But they must also recognize that their level of play must rise to avoid letting the Habs back into this series.

Again, this is all new for them.

"With this team, if you look at our roster, well over half of this team has played more games in these playoffs than they have in their entire career," Cooper said after Game 4. "So everything is a learning experience, everything is new for us. We had never been to a Game 7 most of us [until last round]. For most of us, this is the first time we had ever won a playoff game, we've never been up in a series ever until this series. We're learning all these things as we go, and they're great experiences for our guys.

"It's fun being part of this, we're playing hockey in May, we've got a chance to get to the conference final. We need to embrace that. I'm very confident we will. Because we're a very resilient group. All year long we've done really well after we've lost. This group has rebounded well, and I expect no less from them."

It wasn't quite Roy's "balls on the table" speech from a year ago, but the point here is similar is the same. A very composed and upbeat Cooper is trying to remind people that his team is all new to this playoff thing. Of course, they’re intent on reaching the Eastern Conference finals, and it will very likely happen given their three shots at it, but like Roy a year ago, Cooper has underlined that his youngsters will need to figure out their own winning path, even if fraught with a few curveballs.

Morrow, who spent last season with the Blues and also played with the Penguins the season before, likes what he sees with this young Lightning team. They have impressed him even more than he predicted when signing last summer.

"I feel really lucky to be part of it," Morrow said. "I didn't really know, being in the West for so long, just the little exposure you had [to Tampa], obviously you know about Stamkos, but I didn't know much about Johnson or Palat. I didn't even know Kucherov was on the team [when] I signed last summer.

"I was thinking, 'Well, I haven't heard of many of these guys, maybe I'll come in and take some ice time away from them.' Wow, they proved me wrong, holy crap. They can play."

As far as the current class in session?

"If you were looking for an answer, I don't have it," Morrow said. "These last two games we've really been outplayed. Hopefully, that is enough to learn the lesson. And move on from that. But this team has a real good future ahead of it."

On that, we're all in agreement.