TAMPA, FLA. — Winning the Stanley Cup this year is obviously a priority for the Tampa Bay Lightning. But it isn’t a necessity.
Despite going all-in at the trade deadline and acquiring defenceman Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller from the New York Rangers for a package of prospects and draft picks, the team’s window of opportunity extends beyond this year.
That’s because with the exception of fourth-line forward Chris Kunitz and third-pairing defenceman Andrej Sustr, most of the players on the roster today will be back for next season. After that, it gets a lot dicier.
McDonagh’s and Miller’s contracts both expire at the end of 2018-19. That’s the same time when Nikita Kucherov will be looking for a significant raise from his US$4.7-million contract, while forwards Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde, and defencemen Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi become free agents.
In other words, the Lightning have this year and next to try to win a Stanley Cup — or two.
“Personally, I just look at the window as 2017-18,” said head coach Jon Cooper. “That’s our window. And let’s take this as far as we can. Coming into this season, we wanted to raise the Stanley Cup over our heads. And as of now, out of 31 teams there’s only four left and we’re one of them. So we’re marching towards that goal.”
Really, the team has been marching toward that goal for a while now. It was in 2015 when the Lightning lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup final with a roster where its best players were all 24 or under. The following season, they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the conference final. And though injuries played a big part in them missing the playoffs last year, Tampa Bay was the best team in the Eastern Conference this season.
With practically everyone coming back, there’s no reason to suggest they won’t be again next year.
“I know back in 2015, people talked about our team saying they’re going to be here for a long time,” said Cooper. “You know, I guess they were right. We’ve been back in this situation three out of four times, but one of those years we did miss the playoffs.”
As for dealing with pressure of being a Cup favourite, captain Steven Stamkos said it’s what the players inside the room expect as well.
“When we get here you’re obviously playing at the top of your game when you make it this far into the playoffs,” said Stamkos. “We’ve had a belief in this room since Day 1, so nothing’s changed now.”
* * *
No question, getting past the Penguins was a huge monkey off the backs for a lot of the Capitals. In particular, Alex Ovechkin is probably breathing a little easier having finally edged on-ice rival Sidney Crosby.
In other words, the Lightning should be a little worried.
Ovechkin, who won his seventh Rocket Richard Trophy with 49 goals this season, leads Washington and Tampa with eight goals and 15 points in 12 games. With even more eyeballs directed his way, teammates are expecting him to be even better in the conference final.
“I think he’s thinking of the big stage,” said Capitals defenceman Matt Niskanen. “He’ll be buzzing. He’ll want to make a difference.”
* * *
Aside from having the better regular season record, Tampa Bay also went 2-1-0 against Washington in the regular season. Not that Stamkos believes it matters.
If it did, Tampa Bay might not have advanced past their first- or second-round opponents.
“I think we went 0-3 against New Jersey and 1-3 against Boston, so that should answer the question,” said Stamkos. “That means nothing at this time of the year. It’s a fresh start. That’s the beauty of the playoffs.”
* * *
Jakub Vrana is one of five rookies who have appeared in a post-season game for the Capitals. But he hardly lacks experience. Along with Chandler Stephenson, Christian Djoos, Shane Gersich and Travis Boyd, the 22-year-old Vrana reached the 2016 Calder Cup final with the team’s AHL affiliate, losing in four straight games.
“It’s a big stage, obviously not as big as they are on now,” head coach Barry Trotz said of the minor-league experience. “But anybody who’s won something with a group understands the whole process. Having some of those young guys get to the final helps a lot.”
Vrana has two goals and five points in 11 playoff games this season.
* * *
Not that he necessarily needed it, but there’s a little extra motivation in playing the Lightning for Brett Connolly.
The third-line forward was Tampa Bay’s sixth-overall pick in 2010 before moving on to Boston and then Washington to make room for Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat and several others.
“These are guys that I’m familiar with and I’m excited to make it as difficult as possible on them,” said Connolly, who has two goals and one assist in 12 playoff games. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s no secret these are guys who elevated their game when I was younger and established themselves with this organization before I did and ultimately that’s why I was moved out.
“I’m going to try and have my best game every single night.”
While the Capitals advanced to the conference final on Monday, the Lightning finished off their second-round opponent on Sunday. The extra day might not sound like much, but at this time of year the players will take as much rest as they can get.
“I don’t know what’s ideal at this time of year,” said Stamkos. “Guys are banged up probably on all the teams at this time of year to begin with. Anytime you can get a few days of rest, it’s welcome.”
• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @Michael_Traikos