TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – The day has finally arrived. Opening night of the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs is here and the Tampa Bay Lightning will own the spotlight when it hosts the Columbus Blue Jackets in game one of their first round, best-of-seven series.
After a season for the record books, the Lightning enter the postseason as heavy favorites to lift the Stanley Cup. The President’s Trophy, however, does not guarantee a Cup, nor success in any round of the playoffs. So the Lightning spent Monday and Tuesday at their practice facility working on details. They hope that their first game of the first round is reflective of the way they played for days and weeks after a playoff spot was clinched.
“We never really sat back and said, you know what? We’re good where we’re at.” Center Tyler Johnson said. “We always wanted to be better and we’ve just done that all year long.”
“I think we’ve done all we can to get ready and we watched a lot of video and worked on some things that we need to work on,” Forward Brayden Point said. “Hopefully in game one we have a good showing.”
The beginning of the playoffs feels to many players like opening night of the regular season. Adrenaline rules the opening minutes of games and teams, for the most part, will be at their healthiest level compared to the later rounds. Playoff hockey is different. Players will block more shots and clog more passing lanes, knowing that one mistake could lead to the goal that spells doom. The energy is different for the fans as well, some of them watching casually during the season, and dialing in when the playoffs begin.
“You ask anyone, it’s the most fun,” Center Alex Killorn said. “Everything is heightened. The fans are into it. Every play is so meaningful. It’s a lot more fun that the regular season.”
The Lightning are coming off of a 62-win regular season, tied for the most in NHL history. Their 128 points lapped the field and numerous individual milestones led to the team’s success. Forward Nikita Kucherov set a Lightning (and Russian-born NHL player) record with 128 total points. Three different Lightning players surpassed the 40-goal mark.
But the Stanley Cup has eluded this generation of Lightning players, even as the hockey world marvels about the franchise and its talent. In three of the past five years, the Lightning have reached the Eastern Conference Final, playing for the Stanley Cup in 2015. The Lightning lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games that summer and have fallen in a pair of game sevens in the conference finals since that 2015 run.
The Columbus Blue Jackets will also present a difficult first round test, after a month long fight to earn the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Jackets finished the season winning seven out of eight games to edge past the Montreal Canadiens. Last year, the Jackets stunned eventual Stanley Cup winner Washington in the first two games of the first round. They took a 2-0 series lead home to Columbus before dropping four straight to the Capitals.
“Do we have a little bit more experience in some of these areas than maybe some other teams do?,” Head Coach Jon Cooper said. “There’s no doubt we do but that doesn’t guarantee moving on.”
“It’s going to be extremely difficult no matter who you play so that’s it,” Center Steven Stamkos said. “Obviously everyone’s dream when they come in is to be holding that Stanley Cup. We have to want it a little more. We have to show that and prove that.”