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HOW THE EAST WAS WON Written by Laci Bloomers - May 5th, 2011
Ryan Malone in action



Gunslingers are commonly thought of to be involved in the wild, wild, west.  This season, the east boasted a new gunslinger as the Tampa Bay Lightning posted their first Conference title.



The Lightning is a franchise that has always flown under the CMHL radar.  In the league’s first 6 years, they have never had home ice advantage in the playoffs, despite the fact that this is their 5th consecutive playoff appearance.  The Lightning have never had a losing season, and they have improved each season since the league’s inception, something no other team in the league has accomplished.


“Really?” asked Head Coach Dave Tippett.  “That is quite something if you think of it.  We are really going to have to excel next season to continue that streak!”


Tippett is right, as the Lightning had an amazing season.  Still, hockey pundits wonder how this club will do in the playoffs.  Despite a 60 win, 126 point season, surpassing last year’s mark by 31 points, some experts believe they could be taken down by a Toronto or Carolina playoff opponent.


Tippett states “In the playoffs anything can happen, and the truly great teams prove they have arrived by what they do in the playoffs.  Until we prove ourselves in the post-season, all we have accomplished is that we had a great regular season.”


What believers of the Lightning point out is that this team was built for the playoffs.  Let’s look at their 82-game schedule this season.  In 82 games, an incredible 44 were decided by a single goal.  That in itself is an amazing statistic, but then when you consider that in those 44 one-goal games the Lightning were an incredible 33-5-6, it shows that they can handle the pressure of these close games.


“We have been playing playoff hockey all season long” stated goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff.  “We have found ways to win these close games, and if we do that we will go far in the playoffs.”  Kiprusoff would know something about that, as he was a Conn Smythe winning Stanley Cup champion 4 years ago.  “It is tough to run through the playoffs, so this season we need to take advantage of what we have done all year” he added.  “We do not need to change a thing about our game.”


So why is this team so different?  Let’s take a look at the Lightning regular season so we can understand how the East was won!


Brian Rafalski

Without a doubt the leader on this team, Rafalski came over to the Lightning last season as a pending UFA in a trade with the New York Islanders.  Roman Hamrlik went the other way in the trade on December 30th, 2009.  Rafalski had a banner season in 2009-10, finishing with 26 goals and 74 points.  The top priority for the Tampa Bay organization was to resign the 36 year old blue-liner over the summer, and they did just that.  Rafalski responded by being the leader they needed, and this year on a team that scored a ton, he led the club with 83 points, including 18 goals.


Miikka Kiprusoff

“Steve Mason is a terrific young goalie, and is has a long career ahead of him in this league.  We simply feel that you need a veteran goaltender to win those close games, and now we have one.”


Those were the words of GM Dave Normoyle the day after the Lightning traded the young rising star (Mason) to Pittsburgh to acquire Miikka Kiprusoff before the season started.  The Lightning had been swept by the powerhouse Toronto Maple Leafs in last year’s playoffs, and every game was a goal short.  The management team felt they needed to have a net-minder who could steal those one-goal games, and they grabbed the S3 Conn Smythe winner when the opportunity arose.  All the Fin did was win 58 games, sport a 2.22 GAA and 7 shut-outs.


Ryan Malone

The Lightning had many people shaking their heads when they sent heralded center Dave Steckel and highly touted prospect Tyson Barrie to rival Carolina in the off-season to acquire winger Ryan Malone and prospect Eric Gelinas.  Who could blame them, as Malone’s career high was 13 goals and 29 points.  The coaching staff saw a potential power forward with good hands, and they worked on Malone to use his 6’4 224 pound frame to get to those dirty areas.  The winger had one of the most remarkable turnarounds ever seen in the CMHL, as he led the talented Lightning squad with 38 goals this season.  Included in that total, earned on the 2nd line, was 13 power play goals (almost double his first 6 year total) and 9 game winners.


Rick Nash

Tampa Bay needed another forward with star power.  They wanted another gritty young forward to compliment what they felt Malone could do.  In S6, it was Keith Tkachuk who lead their offence, and they wanted a younger version.  On the last day of August last season, the opportunity presented itself when the Buffalo Sabres proposed a blockbuster style trade.  When the dust settled, 9 players and 3 picks were trading organizations and the biggest name of the bunch was Nash.  Coming off a couple of disappointing seasons goal wise, Nash responded with 35 goals and 40 assists after a slow start with his new club.  The 26 year old is signed for 3 seasons and will lead a younger club next season.


Mark Giordano

If Giordano were not 28 years old, he would have to have strong consideration for the Calder Trophy this year.  Acquired in 2009 from Minnesota for a 6th round pick, he played in 37 games spanning 3 seasons with the club before sticking this season.  The dependable rearguard scored 14 goals, picked up 40 points and was a +20 in his first CMHL season.


David Moss

Moss continued to grow as a hockey player this past season, as he hit 20 goals for the 2nd straight year.  “Mosser is one of the players I get asked about the most in trade talks” noted the club’s GM.  And why not?  Over the past two seasons, the 3rd line winger has tallied 44 goals and 112 points, including a career high 58 this season.  Add 18 power play goals and 9 game winners in two seasons, and it is easy to see his value to this club.


Tomas Kaberle

On February 3rd the Sabres and Lightning again managed to get a big trade completed.  Brian Gionta was having a monster season for the Bolts, but the club felt it needed another top defenseman to help take the load.  Kaberle was having a disappointing season and the Sabres were looking to move his salary.  The Lightning moved Gionta, Doug Murray, a prospect and a pick for Kaberle, Steve Sullivan a prospect and pick.  The pending UFA had a tremendous final 3 months and finished with 50 points and a +5 (he was -9 when he arrived).  The 50 points finished 3 back of his career high, and both the player and the club hope to get a deal in place after the playoffs to keep him in Tampa.


Steve Sullivan

Like Kaberle, Sullivan was struggling in Buffalo.  After flirting with 90 points each of the two previous seasons, he had but 12 goals with just 3 months remaining in the season.  The 35 year old responded with 17 goals over the final 3 months to finish with 29.  While it broke a streak of 3 straight 30+ goal seasons, his contribution to the team cannot be discounted.


Jonathan Toews

The acquisition of Toews defined the Lightning as true contenders in the minds of many hockey pundits.  For others, it was the selling off of a lot of future.  The critics have been silenced.  The 22 year old center took off right away, and finished the season with career highs in goals (34) and points (82) thanks to a strong finish.  He is a pending RFA, but the Lightning will do all that they can to tie up the budding star.


The Tampa Bay fans are very excited as the season draws to a close.  We could be in for a long playoff run in the state of Florida in 2011.


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