By Larry Wigge
It became Panic Time.
How else could you describe the Tampa Bay Lightning, who lost All-Star goalie Ben Bishop and No. 1 center Tyler Johnson in the first period.
Opponents game plan, looking for the slightest bit of trouble.
But ... the Lightning ... had a 1-0 lead.
"We're hoping for the best," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
Ondrej Palat extended the lead to 2-0 with a power-play goal 2:33 into the second period and Jonathan Drouin made it 3-0 for Tampa Bay when Palat set him up on a 3-on-1 against Pittsburgh defenseman Brian Dumoulin with 1:11 left in the period.
By that time, Johnson had returned to the lineup.
Two assists by Valterri Filppula was enough to help Tampa Bay to a 3-1 victory over Pittsburgh in the first game of the Eastern Conference final series.
Looking for players, who had played in the big game, at the biggest moments, was key to Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman. He played on the Detroit Red Wings one of the most consistent teams in the NHL. A center by trade, Yzerman was looking for good player, consistently good. And acted fast in signing free-agent Filppula, a guy who had been to the finals three times, who had played in 135 games of playoff experience -- including 2008 when he helped Detroit win a Stanley Cup.
"I talked to him right away a few times," Filppula said of Yzerman. "It seemed like he wanted me to be a part of this team."
Cooper has learned to lean on the Vantaa, Finland. For ... everything.
"You look at the minutes and the situations he plays for us," Cooper explained. 'He kills penalties, he takes the big draws, he plays in the power play, he plays in our top six. That goes down as one of those sneaky signings that people have already probably forgotten about.
"He is the guy that has won a Cup. He's often spoken to our team about the preparation and things that go into it. I don't know where we'd be without him."
He had only eight goals and 23 assists during the regular season, but now Filppula has one goals the five assists in 11 postseason games with Tampa Bay.
He scored 23 goals one year when he was playing for the Red Wings and had 25 in Filippula first season in Tampa Bay.
Valtteri Filppula ... the forgotten man. Seriously.
At a press conference, Cooper was being asked whether Filppula had become the forgotten forward on a team with so many star players. A staff member interrupted to announce that Steven Stamkos was available outside the team’s dressing room.
The room emptied. Fast.
"How apropos," Cooper said, laughing. "The time you ask a question about Val and how important he's been on this team, three-quarters of this room walked out of here. That's how it goes with Val."
Said Stamkos: "He leads by the way he plays. Any time you can add a guy who has gone far in the playoffs, has won a championship ... you can't have enough of that. He was probably under the radar in Detroit, but here, he is a big piece of our puzzle."
Filppula was 24 years old and in his second full season when the Red Wings won it all seven seasons ago.
"I remember his first training camp with us two years ago. It's pretty magical what he can do with the puck," Tyler Johnson said. "You can tell he's been working with Pavel Datsyuk pretty much all his entire career. For him to come over here and kind of teach us the little things about puck control, how you can slow down the tempo of the game a bit and play his style, I think a lot of guys learned from that."
A 32-year-old Finn who was drafted in the third round, 95th overall, by the Wings in 2002.
He's no Pavel Datsyuk. He fails in comparison to Henrik Zetterberg. But put a player in a position to score for Valtteri Filppula and watch what happens.
"Different name, but really, really good," Zetterberg explained just before he went behind a curtain, "and getting more confident in his ability all the time."
I can remember former captain a future Hall of Famer Nick Lidstrom once talking about Filppula. He asked was that, "Was that 51 or 40?" Lidstrom knew that Zetterberg was No. 40 and 51 was Filppula.
"The kid has size, speed ... and great skill," continued Lidstrom.
"Fil's one of those guys that would be probably on a top line on any other team," said Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "He's a very smart player, both directions, great defensively, great offensively. He doesn't always get the attention because of the players we have, but he's always a key for us. The way he works out there shows everyone he's a leader."
The story on this forward is typical. Filppula followed his older brother Lars, who currently plays in the Finnish Elite League, to the rink. He lived to play hockey. He had posters of Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu in his room back home.
"My parents were the driving force," Valtteri said. "My brother and I got our athletic ability from my dad, who played Finnish baseball. And my mom ... she's a teacher ... and she made sure both of us learned more than just one language, so we could succeed in the world. That has become very, very important to me."
Raimeri Filppula, Val's father, currently works as an electrical engineer. His mom, Liisa, still is a kindergarten teacher.
Filppula wasn’t one of those too-small prospects the Red Wings dug up late in the 1998 and 1999 drafts, when they selected Datsyuk 171st in 1998 and Zetterberg 210th the following year. He's 6-0, 193 pounds. But there still were some anxious moments for him.
"I had a pretty good year scoring in my final year in the Finnish Elite League (10 goals and 30 points, plus another 11 points in 12 playoff games for Jokerit Helsinki in 2004-05), but when I got to North America ... it was like the walls were closing in on me ... no room to move on the smaller ice surface over here," Filppula added. "I didn't know if I'd make it here."
And when Mike Babcock tapped Filppula on the shoulder to move from his normal line with Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson to play with Marian Hossa and Tomas Holmstrom, he cited Valtteri's speed and playmaking ability as what he wanted from him in this situation.
"The Red Wings don't put you on any situation that might put you in over your head, in answer to your question about playing on the No. 1 line now," Filppula said. "And they make sure you have another player who acts as a sounding-board for you."
"Exactly," he smiled.
And who's your mentor?
"Pav," he said, smiling again.
And how does Datsyuk help you out?
"He tells me to be comfortable and confident. Enjoy myself," Filppula said of his time on the ice and off the ice watching movies like The Usual Suspects, the Die Hard series and James Bond action flicks, plus listening to his favorite Metallica songs, playing tennis or working on his golf game.
But there's no time for leisure activities now.
"Oh yeah, I forgot," Filppula said with his biggest smile of the day. "Pav always tells me to shoot more."
John Cooper is always telling Valtteri Filppula to shoot more, too.
But he'll taken the veteran forward ... just like he is now.