The Athletic

LeBrun: Here comes the Lightning (again), so watch out, NHL

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TORONTO — Here comes the Lightning.

But shhh. They don’t want anyone to pay attention to them.

I mean, it shouldn’t surprise any of us. But in an Atlantic Division that has seen the Bruins roar out with no sign of slowing down and the Maple Leafs take off in November and not look back, it’s as if the perennial Stanley Cup finalists finally decided to raise their collective hand from the row. from behind and say, “Hey, don’t forget about us!”

With five straight wins and winners of eight of their last 10 games, the Bolts arrive for a date in Toronto on Tuesday night looking like normal Cup contenders.

“It’s certainly been more of an under-the-radar season, but I think last year was similar as well, right? We’re just doing our thing,” Tampa captain Steven Stamkos said Monday after practice at Scotiabank Arena. “We know we have that core here who’s been here a while, who’s been through a lot and can navigate the waters of an 82-game schedule and know how to react.”

There is such a balance about the Lightning. For so many teams, there are fires to put out every month as they navigate the ups and downs of 82 games. The Bolts experts have that knowledge that allows them to put their heads down and focus on preparing their game for the playoffs.

“The one thing for us that I tell guys all the time: It doesn’t matter where we end up. He is getting there. You have to get in there,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said Monday. “You run your season that way. We go into every game wanting to win it, but we know that’s not going to happen.

“The guys have done a great job navigating our way to the playoffs, and when we get there, we’ll be ready to go.”

So here they are again, apparently. Whether people are tired of them or not.

It seems much of the hockey world was ready to turn the page on the Lightning after last season’s Stanley Cup Final loss to Colorado, ending Tampa Bay’s bid for a treble. Is it lightning fatigue with the fans and the media? Or is it the idea that the salary cap continues to take away players year after year that creates the expectation that they will start to decline?

Whatever the case, very little has been said about the Bolts this season. But I mean, they’re not going anywhere. They absolutely have a shot at a fourth straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

“Everyone is looking for something new, right? Somebody new win or somebody new come along,” Cooper said. “But what about the team that wants to sit there and maybe throw in (the word) ‘dynasty’? That’s what we’re seeing.”

In the salary-cap era, they’re the closest thing to a dynasty right now. Four Stanley Cup Finals in eight years, two Cup wins, six conference finals in eight seasons, and constant competition for nearly a decade.

“That’s hard to do,” Cooper continued. “You can make that run to the top, but to be able to stay there, what those guys have done has been remarkable.

“Now, it’s easy for the fans or the media to fall asleep and say, ‘It’s just the Lightning again,’ I guess. But that’s not how we feel. We get a lot of satisfaction from going through people and getting to the top and staying there. Because it’s a hard thing to do. And you never know when it’s going to go. So enjoy it when you’re here. And when you get a chance to stay there, make sure you do.”

Watch as Cooper talks about what “those guys” have done. He wants his players to get full credit for what they’ve produced over the years. Let’s not kid ourselves though: Cooper is one of the best trainers, if not the Best coach in the NHL. It is an equally important part of what has happened.

But what’s also evident with this Lightning team is that no one lives in the past. There’s a hunger in that locker room that’s equaled by some teams that haven’t won anything.

Tampa Bay isn’t ready to turn the page and pass the baton to the Maple Leafs or anyone else.

Despite losing players year after year due to the salary cap, the Bolts find a way to stay near the top.

“Listen, we’re definitely a different team than we’ve been in the past,” Stamkos said. But that’s no excuse to throw in the towel. The boys have stepped up. We’ve had guys come in and play very well and have been given the opportunity to raise their game. And we have the goal that we know we have here”.

And no doubt Lightning GM Julien BriseBois will soon announce to the world that he has no cap space and doubts he’ll be active before the trade deadline, and then he’ll go out and add a major piece or two. It’s what he does.

“Our management does an amazing job of navigating what little leeway there is in the salary cap to improve our team,” Stamkos said. “As players, that’s all you can ask of management.

Julien has done a great job. It’s up to us, as players, to put ourselves in a position to do that, and you never know. But we believe we are still one of the best teams in the league.”

The road in the Atlantic, once again, will be daunting. The first-place Bruins and second-place Leafs look legit. The Lightning had to go through seven games with the Leafs in the first round last spring, winning Game 7 here in Toronto.

Bruins, Leafs and Bolts. What a three-team battle is shaping up for the spring. And let’s see if the Panthers can get things back on track.

“Obviously, Boston has just taken off since the beginning of the year. They’ve been on a roll,” Lightning center Anthony Cirelli said. The Leafs too. They have gone ahead of us. We are in a tough division. There are many teams sneaking up on you, so you need to keep up or even improve. But you just have to go in, right?

Such is life in the Atlantic, where Florida won the Presidents’ Trophy last season. It is a wicked division.

“I mean, it’s been like that since that division was created,” Stamkos said. “I remember standing in that hallway talking about how Boston played Toronto every year in the first round and it was either two top five or two top 10 teams that met in the first round. It wasn’t any different last year either (with Tampa Bay-Toronto). That is the beauty of our sport. Sometimes it’s just playoff matchups, right? Sometimes you play better against some teams than others.

“We could have been sitting there last year, in the first round of Game 7, and Toronto could have gone to the Cup final. I mean, that’s the reality of the game.”

Steven, don’t do that to Leaf fans, man.

His point is that parity is real. But so is the playoff experience.

“We know we have a group that if we continue to play well in the playoffs, we have a lot of experience that we can sit on and rely on in those moments,” Stamkos added.

What is also apparent is that, despite back-to-back Cup wins in 2020 and 2021 and the euphoria that came with it, the slump that also came with the loss to the Avs last June still stings on this Lightning team.

Which has created a new hunger.

“When you get there, you really want to win,” blue line veteran Victor Hedman said Monday. “We played against an incredible team in Colorado. But for us, at the end of the day, I see it for myself: I’m 32 years old, we have an incredible team and we can’t pass up this opportunity.”

I can’t let this opportunity pass. Think about that statement for a moment. From a guy who’s been with this current Lightning core since day 1. The fact that Hedman sees things that way, not wanting to pass up the opportunity that’s presented, I mean, there are teams in the NHL trying to get two playoff victories. together, not to mention what Tampa has already done.

But that’s what makes great teams great. The willingness to sacrifice and pay the price. The hunger to win. You don’t really understand everything until you’ve been to the top.

“Just going through what we’ve been through, winning those two (Cups), the feeling you get; you want to continue being there, ”Cirelli repeated. “This group is really motivated, especially with the way it ended last year. We are motivated and hungry to go back there. We know it’s a long road, there’s a lot of regular season hockey left. We just have to keep building our game.”

Dynasty? I’ve always noticed that players don’t think about such things until they retire a long time ago.

“It’s almost one of the things that you know is there and other people are talking about it and you don’t really bring it up in the room,” Stamkos said. “Until you’re there. Being in the final last year for the third year in a row, there was some talk in the media. We were asked before the Colorado series, ‘If you guys win this, then that word is definitely appropriate.’ You think about it a little bit, but like you said, when you’re living in the moment, it’s hard to look at that.”

But …

“We certainly believe we can do more races with this group,” added Stamkos. “I said it after we lost in Game 6 last year: Who says we’re done with this core?”

Hopefully no one.

(Top photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)


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