Brash young Lightning always believed they could win

NEW YORK -- The comment came about eight and half hours before puck drop.

"He’s a great goalie. [But] he’s never played the Tampa Bay Lightning in a Game 7 before," Steven Stamkos said around the noon hour Friday.


Call it cocky, brash or just a healthy dose of swagger, it was a statement from the captain of the Lightning that despite having all the respect in the world for New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist and his Game 7 pedigree, the young kids from Tampa Bay weren’t about to kneel and kiss his ring, either.

They were here to win. And they truly felt they could do just that even though no other team had done it to the Rangers in a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden ... ever.

"No one probably believed that we were going to win this game," Stamkos said after his team booked its ticket to the Stanley Cup finals with a 2-0 Game 7 win at a stunned Madison Square Garden. "Not that we took it personally, but we had a little bit of an attitude coming in here.

"Maybe a little motivation watching all the networks talking about how the Rangers were this unbeatable force in Game 7. Give them credit, they’re an unbelievable team. Henrik Lundqvist lived up to the billing tonight, he played outstanding. But we believed in ourselves. Obviously helped winning two prior games here. When you can come in at this time of year and win three games on the road in a building like this, you deserve to move on."

Veteran winger Brenden Morrow smiled when reminded of Stamkos’ morning comment. Turns out it was something they had talked about internally, the fact that all those Rangers Game 7 stats had nothing to do with the Lightning in the here and now. Thing is, Stamkos decided to share that feeling with the world.

"I think there’s some swagger here," said the 36-year-old Morrow. "It’s not arrogance, it’s belief in each other."

Added star blueliner Victor Hedman, pointing to Stamkos across the room: "We've got confidence in ourselves. It starts with that guy over there, he leads by example."

Outside the exuberant visitors dressing room, the architect of the team quietly stood talking to a few people.

If you know Steve Yzerman, you understand how much humility is part of his DNA; it was that way as a Hockey Hall of Fame player, and remains so as one of the top general managers in the NHL.

Told of Stamkos’ comment in the morning, the kind of thing Yzerman perhaps would have never said as a player, the Tampa Bay GM provided context.

"Stammer is a real modest guy," Yzerman told ESPN.com. "But I think the group collectively, the atmosphere in our locker room is really good. They’re a talented group of guys who work really hard, and they’re very unselfish. And they’re led by No. 91; he just wants to win. I just think they felt good heading into this game."

They felt good despite dropping a 7-3 decision at home in Game 6, a result that led to many people writing off the young Bolts, especially in the face of New York’s daunting Game 7 history, 7-0 all-time at home in Game 7s and six wins in a row overall in Game 7s.

But deep down Yzerman believed his team would respond and would not flinch on this big stage.

"We haven’t gotten rattled, all throughout the Detroit series, the Montreal series and this one, it’s been up and down and they’ve responded really well, the players and the coaches have done a really good job of regrouping," he said.

Part of the ability of the Lightning to regroup as they have throughout the playoffs was having veteran leadership surround the young core. Yzerman added Jason Garrison and Brenden Morrow last summer and traded for Braydon Coburn at the trade deadline. Those moves were instrumental.

"They keep us even keel," young star Tyler Johnson said of the leaders on the team. "I know that’s why Yzerman and the group brought in those key guys, it’s really helped us out."

On Friday night, the vets on the team showed composure, and it fed down to the kids.

"These young guys are really good, but the veterans like Jason Garrison, Braydon Coburn, Ryan Callahan, Brenden Morrow -- look at the poise they all played with tonight," Yzerman said. "They’re really good leaders, they’re good guys. And the young guys just go out and play."

Still, even Morrow continues to be amazed. The old goat on the team hasn’t seen kids like this respond this way under pressure in a long time.

"I really don’t know, they’re so mature for a young group," Morrow said. "Is it coaching or parenting? They know what it takes to win and they’ve won in the past. It’s made it easier on the leaders on the team, the players here know what direction they want to go in."

The fact of the matter is, despite having 15 players on the roster 25 and younger, the maturity level of his rising, elite squad is more advanced than most people realize.

"I think so," Stamkos said. "You look around at the leaders that we’ve brought in the last couple of years. These are the moments that we brought them in for. The leadership core of this team is one of the best I’ve ever been part of. Probably the best as a unit. And the young guys have won before at different levels, they know what it takes."

And so on this stage, Game 7 at MSG, facing a goalie that puts up a brick wall in these moments, the young Lightning played the most composed game of the entire playoffs. Tied 0-0 after 40 minutes, it is the young Lightning and not the veteran Rangers who made the third period their own with a pair of goals.

"For whatever reason, that was probably the most calm Game 7 I’ve ever played in," Stamkos said. "And not just for me, but just on the bench. I don’t know what it was, going in the third we were loose. We knew we were playing the game the right way. We knew we were going to get one and we were going to go from there. It wasn’t pretty, but we found a way. I’m so proud of these guys."

So is the coach. Jon Cooper loves these kids. They keep showing him more at each turn.

"I don't know if we're so young and dumb and don't know any better," he said after the game. "But you walk into that room, and I've watched this team get pushed against the wall. ... But they just answer the challenge. Every time we as a staff go in and challenge them, they respond. And they're such a fun team to coach because they can play the game in a multitude of ways. You want to shoot it out, which our guys like to do, we can shoot it out. We want to win, want to go to the Stanley Cup final, then you have to play D."

And so the Lightning, despite having a natural desire to open it up and entertain, buckled down and defended, 2-0 in Game 5 and 2-0 in Game 7, both here at MSG.

You have to have seen it with your own eyes to believe it.

Just like the Chicago Blackhawks have done for half a decade, the Lightning can beat you whatever way they want.

Four more wins and the Lightning can become the youngest Stanley Cup champions since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens.

But for now, a day or two to reflect on what already has been quite a ride.

"We’ll take a breather tomorrow and get back to worrying on Sunday," Yzerman said with a smile as he exited MSG. "We want to win. You get this far, you want to win."