Hockey

If you happen to assume the Tampa Bay Lightning are harmful this yr, simply wait till subsequent season

TAMPA, FLA. — Successful the Stanley Cup this yr is clearly a precedence for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Nevertheless it isn’t a necessity.

Regardless of going all-in on the commerce deadline and buying defenceman Ryan McDonagh and ahead J.T. Miller from the New York Rangers for a package deal of prospects and draft picks, the group’s window of alternative extends past this yr.

That’s as a result of excluding fourth-line ahead Chris Kunitz and third-pairing defenceman Andrej Sustr, a lot of the gamers on the roster at the moment will probably be again for subsequent season. After that, it will get lots dicier.

McDonagh’s and Miller’s contracts each expire on the finish of 2018-19. That’s the identical time when Nikita Kucherov will probably be on the lookout for a major increase from his US$4.7-million contract, whereas forwards Brayden Level and Yanni Gourde, and defencemen Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi turn into free brokers.

In different phrases, the Lightning have this yr and subsequent to attempt to win a Stanley Cup — or two.

“Personally, I simply have a look at the window as 2017-18,” mentioned head coach Jon Cooper. “That’s our window. And let’s take this so far as we are able to. Coming into this season, we wished to boost the Stanley Cup over our heads. And as of now, out of 31 groups there’s solely 4 left and we’re one among them. So we’re marching in direction of that objective.”

Actually, the group has been marching towards that objective for some time now. It was in 2015 when the Lightning misplaced to the Chicago Blackhawks within the Stanley Cup closing with a roster the place its finest gamers have been all 24 or beneath. The next season, they misplaced to the Pittsburgh Penguins within the convention closing. And although accidents performed an enormous half in them lacking the playoffs final yr, Tampa Bay was the perfect group within the Jap Convention this season.

With virtually everybody coming again, there’s no purpose to counsel they gained’t be once more subsequent yr.

“I do know again in 2015, folks talked about our group saying they’re going to be right here for a very long time,” mentioned Cooper. “You realize, I suppose they have been proper. We’ve been again on this state of affairs three out of 4 instances, however a kind of years we did miss the playoffs.”

As for coping with strain of being a Cup favorite, captain Steven Stamkos mentioned it’s what the gamers contained in the room count on as properly.

“After we get right here you’re clearly taking part in on the high of your recreation while you make it this far into the playoffs,” mentioned Stamkos. “We’ve had a perception on this room since Day 1, so nothing’s modified now.”

* * *

No query, getting previous the Penguins was an enormous monkey off the backs for lots of the Capitals. Specifically, Alex Ovechkin might be respiration slightly simpler having lastly edged on-ice rival Sidney Crosby.

In different phrases, the Lightning needs to be slightly nervous.

Ovechkin, who gained his seventh Rocket Richard Trophy with 49 objectives this season, leads Washington and Tampa with eight objectives and 15 factors in 12 video games. With much more eyeballs directed his manner, teammates predict him to be even higher within the convention closing.

“I feel he’s pondering of the massive stage,” mentioned Capitals defenceman Matt Niskanen. “He’ll be buzzing. He’ll need to make a distinction.”

* * *

Except for having the higher common season file, Tampa Bay additionally went 2-1-Zero in opposition to Washington within the common season. Not that Stamkos believes it issues.

If it did, Tampa Bay won’t have superior previous their first- or second-round opponents.

“I feel we went 0-Three in opposition to New Jersey and 1-Three in opposition to Boston, so that ought to reply the query,” mentioned Stamkos. “Meaning nothing right now of the yr. It’s a contemporary begin. That’s the fantastic thing about the playoffs.”

* * *

Jakub Vrana is one among 5 rookies who’ve appeared in a post-season recreation for the Capitals. However he hardly lacks expertise. Together with Chandler Stephenson, Christian Djoos, Shane Gersich and Travis Boyd, the 22-year-old Vrana reached the 2016 Calder Cup closing with the group’s AHL affiliate, dropping in 4 straight video games.

“It’s an enormous stage, clearly not as large as they’re on now,” head coach Barry Trotz mentioned of the minor-league expertise. “However anyone who’s gained one thing with a gaggle understands the entire course of. Having a few of these younger guys get to the ultimate helps lots.”

Vrana has two objectives and 5 factors in 11 playoff video games this season.

* * *

Not that he essentially wanted it, however there’s slightly further motivation in taking part in the Lightning for Brett Connolly.

The third-line ahead was Tampa Bay’s sixth-overall decide in 2010 earlier than transferring on to Boston after which Washington to make room for Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat and a number of other others.

“These are guys that I’m conversant in and I’m excited to make it as troublesome as potential on them,” mentioned Connolly, who has two objectives and one help in 12 playoff video games. “It’s going to be a variety of enjoyable. It’s no secret these are guys who elevated their recreation after I was youthful and established themselves with this group earlier than I did and finally that’s why I used to be moved out.

“I’m going to attempt to have my finest recreation each single evening.”

Whereas the Capitals superior to the convention closing on Monday, the Lightning completed off their second-round opponent on Sunday. The additional day won’t sound like a lot, however right now of yr the gamers will take as a lot relaxation as they will get.

“I don’t know what’s ideally suited right now of yr,” mentioned Stamkos. “Guys are banged up most likely on all of the groups right now of yr to start with. Anytime you will get a number of days of relaxation, it’s welcome.”

E mail: mtraikos@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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