STOCKHOLM — The Tampa Bay Lightning weren’t sure about this when they saw the schedule.
They were going to fly thousands of miles overseas and spend seven days on the road to play two games against the Buffalo Sabres in the 2019 NHL Global Series? Right after spending five days on the road to play the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders?
[RELATED: Complete Global Series coverage]
Well, they’re sure about it now.
“In a funny way, this was kind of what our team needed, I think,” center Steven Stamkos said. “It was a very fun trip, to say the least.”
The Lightning defeated the Sabres 5-3 at Ericsson Globe on Saturday after winning 3-2 here on Friday.
But it wasn’t just the two wins. It was what led up to them, and how that could carry through the rest of the regular season and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“I think we definitely became tighter as a group this trip, and you kind of saw it on the ice with the way we played,” Stamkos said.
“If anything, I think we grew a little bit as a team on this trip, and maybe [it was] a little blessing in disguise going on the road for as long as we have.”
Tampa Bay won 62 games last season, tying the NHL record set by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, and had 128 points, four short of the record set by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens.
Only to be swept in the Eastern Conference First Round by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
It was a shocking, sudden defeat. It threatened to hang over this season. Frankly, it still does.
The Lightning know that no matter what they do in the regular season, they will be judged by what happens in the playoffs. It’s Cup or bust.
That can make it difficult to get up for games, especially early. Perhaps it’s no wonder that they got off to a 6-5-2 start.
But then they boarded their overnight flight to Stockholm on Nov. 2.
“We were kind of able to do a mental reset and kind of get back to that [mindset of] just starting from nowhere,” forward Tyler Johnson said. “I think that definitely benefited us.”
The Lightning were able to settle into one foreign city for a week, far away from their normal routine. They were able to practice Sunday, Monday and Tuesday; take the day off Wednesday; and practice again Thursday. They were able to meet and go over video.
Just as important, if not more important, especially to newcomers like forward Pat Maroon and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, they were able to spend time together in small groups and as a team.
They went to museums, went shopping and went out to eat. They even showed up at a special event to surprise Lightning fans who had bought travel packages to follow the team from Tampa to Stockholm.
“Just kind of team bonding, team chemistry,” Johnson said. “I think that plays a big part in all this.”
It was just two games, and the Lightning were not perfect. They allowed 43 shots Saturday after allowing 22 on Friday.
But they went 3-for-7 on the power play and 4-for-4 on the penalty kill over two games. They received contributions up and down the lineup.
Forward Nikita Kucherov, the reigning winner of the Hart Trophy as NHL most valuable player and Art Ross Trophy as League scoring champion, had a goal and an assist. The fourth line of Yanni Gourde (three goals), Cedric Paquette (three assists) and Maroon (two goals and one assist) was outstanding.
And defenseman Victor Hedman had a goal and an assist in his first NHL games in his home country. The event ended with the fans chanting his name.
“We hung out the whole week together,” Gourde said. “It was just really good to be all together the whole trip, and these two games were very exciting. It was tons of fun, and I think we kind of found a little bit of our game with two solid wins.”
You never know what can be a catalyst for a team.
Last season, the St. Louis Blues were last in the NHL on Jan. 3. A group of players watched an NFL playoff game at a private club in Philadelphia on Jan. 6, and a club member kept requesting the same song, shouting, “Play ‘Gloria’!” The next night, goalie Jordan Binnington made his first start and 25 saves in a 3-0 shutout of the Philadelphia Flyers.
The rest is history. Binnington got hot, the Blues came together, “Gloria” became their victory anthem and they went on to win the Cup.
Maroon was a member of that team. He knows what needs to happen with this one.
“We’ve just got to find ways to build off this chemistry we built, not only on the ice, but off the ice,” Maroon said. “Just keep building that swagger.”