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Lightning are older, and hope better, team than 2015 version

By Diana C. Nearhos, Tampa Bay Times on

Published in Hockey

The Lightning have been here before. No, they haven't played the Stanley Cup Final in an Edmonton bubble against the Stars, but nine of their players have played for hockey's biggest trophy together before.

In 2015, the Lightning were something of a young upstart that made an unexpected run to the Cup final, losing to the Blackhawks. None of the nine still together were yet 30 in that 2015 run: Braydon Coburn, Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Cedric Paquette, Steven Stamkos and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Vasilevskiy was a 20-year-old rookie goalie who had played only 16 regular-season games when Ben Bishop got hurt in the Cup final and he had to step in. Forwards Kucherov and Paquette also were just starting their careers.

Now, including the 2015 playoffs, the nine have been to at least the Eastern Conference final four times in six years (and missed the postseason one of those years).

Vasilevskiy is now a 26-year-old, three-year full-time starter and a Vezina Trophy finalist in each of them, winning last season.

"Of course, I have more experience now," he said. "I was a rookie five years ago. Obviously, now I've grown up, and I'm a big boy now."

 

Defenseman Coburn is an elder statesman at 35. Defenseman Hedman and forwards Stamkos, Johnson and Killorn have hit 30 or will by year's end.

In 2015, Hedman was just starting to establish himself as a leading defenseman in the league. Now, he's a perennial Norris Trophy finalist (a finalist for the fourth straight time this season, winning in 2017-18) and is scoring in the postseason like no one has seen from a defenseman in more than 25 years.

Kucherov broke onto the league stage in that 2015 playoff run. He had had a good sophomore season but wasn't quite a star. Then he averaged nearly a point per game in the playoffs, as he has in every appearance since.

"It's just the overall experience that guys have," NBC Sports analyst Brian Boucher said. "Guys like Killorn, Palat, these guys are now five years later into their career, and that experience, all that stuff, you've got to go through it."

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