TAMPA — You can count on one hand the number of NHL teams who have something left to play for this season.
The rest of them can kick back and relax.
Taking in the vibe inside the Lightning locker room on Thursday, you couldn't tell which category the Lightning falls into.
For the record, yes, Tampa Bay is one of those teams playing for something. But it most definitely has the look and feel of a team so relaxed that you couldn't help but wonder if the players were preparing for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final or a trip to the beach.
Man, this team is chill.
Game 1 against the Caps will be Tampa Bay's 54th postseason game since the start of the 2015 playoffs. It has never been more relaxed, more comfortable, more confident.
Maybe that's because Friday night is its 54th playoffs game since the start of the 2015 playoffs.
"I guess that's called experience,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
There's nothing the Lightning hasn't seen or done in its past three postseason appearances.
Incredible victories, heartbreaking losses, devastating injuries. That's on the ice stuff.
"I was told by a very high official in the Russian government," Phil Esposito said, "that when Canada beat the Soviets in '72, that's when the culture of communism started to change." @PhilEsposito7 @mjfennelly @TB_Times #TBLightning #GoBolts #ALLCAPS https://t.co/ReEfDZcQvg— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) May 10, 2018
Off the ice, the Lightning now knows what it's like. With each round comes more media. That means more interviews, more scrutiny, more potential for controversy. With each round comes more family and friends, looking for tickets and accommodations.
If it a team isn't careful, all the commitments off the ice can overwhelm to the point a team isn't ready on the ice.
Now is when players need to be concentrating. When they are not concentrating, they need to be resting. There is no point in a season where those two things are more important. Yet there is no point in the season when that is harder to do.
"I think it was a lot more eye-opening a few years ago,'' Cooper said. "It's not anymore. We know it's coming. … It's a complete different feel because we've been there. And that's a good thing. Because all those distractions takes away from what your focus is.''
You can dissect the reasons why Tampa Bay cruised through two rounds in 10 games.
It is getting timely goals and solid goaltending. It is playing the most physical hockey this club has played in years and is playing as well defensively as this franchise has ever played. And, there's some luck too as the Lightning has escaped relatively healthy.
But, at the top of the list, is the Lightning's preparation.
"Our focus has been laser-sharp,'' Cooper said.
That starts off the ice.
"We're comfortable in the surroundings and the settings and the situation that we're in at this time of year,'' Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "There's no panic or nervousness. We're excited.''
Following the series-clinching victories against New Jersey and Boston, the Lightning locker room felt like it does after a November win against Buffalo.
"What I sense is we've gotten more confident as the playoffs have gone on,'' Cooper said. "Not that we weren't in the beginning. … But as the playoffs go on, a team judges itself on how it has been playing. If they're playing well, they feel good about themselves.''
No question the Lightning feels good. It should.
There was never a moment in the first-round series against New Jersey when you had the sense Tampa Bay wasn't in total control. And other than the first-game loss to Boston, the Lightning dominated the second round.
Tom Jones joins Rick Stroud to discuss the Eastern Conference final between the Lightning and Capitals and offers his prediction for the series. #TBLightning #GoBolts #ALLCAPS @TB_Times @NFLSTROUD @TomWJones https://t.co/qIfcodwHyQ— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) May 9, 2018
"You're obviously playing at the top of your game when you get this far in the playoffs,'' Stamkos said. "We've been in this situation before with this group of guys. We're definitely comfortable. We know what has worked and what hasn't so far.''
What is working best?
"I think what you learn in the past is not look too far ahead,'' Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. "It's all about the game in front of you.''
That's experience talking.
"Our mission is always the same,'' Cooper said. "What's different now is nothing is coming out of left field. We just know what to expect now.''
Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones.