BRANDON -- Its record-setting regular season officially in the past, the Lightning officially turned the page Monday morning with their first official practice in preparation for the postseason.
And this one-hour session didn’t seem like any ordinary mid-season practice. While players typically stay on the ice following the conclusion to work on their own, Monday’s post-practice routine definitely seemed to be more regimented.
In one corner of the Ice Sports Forum practice rink, Jan Rutta and Erik Cernak weaved around each other doing figure eights, making precise, quick passes back and forth. In an opposite corner, players skated and flipped the puck over sticks and through cones before shooting on goal. And between the blue lines, the goaltenders glided across an imaginary crease, turning away shots rocketed at them by goalie coach Frantz Jean.
While this Lightning team has prided itself in playing loose through its 62-win campaign, Monday’s workout included a notable post-practice with a purpose.
“This time of year, everything is a little more planned," defenseman Braydon Coburn said. "There’s a little more intention in everything you’re doing just because you want to make sure what you’re working on is something that’s applicable to the games. It’s a natural progression into this time of year.”
As the Lightning opens its playoff march against the Columbus Blue Jackets with Wednesday's Eastern Conference quarterfinals opener at Amalie Arena, Day 1 of their preparation was focused.
"This is what we've been working for all season long," center Steven Stamkos said. "This is the most fun time of the year as a player and we're looking forward to the challenge. This is a very, very good team. Whether it's a bad bounce here or a bad game here, it's your ability to bounce back. The playoffs are all about being able to keep an even keel. I think this group is experiences in that regard."
Experience is on the Lightning's side. The majority of this year's team felt the sting of being bounced by the Capitals in the Eastern Conference finals, and 12 players remain from the team that lost to Chicago in the Stanley Cup final in 2015.
“We have to be confident in everything we’ve built towards,” Stamkos said. “We’ve been on deep playoff runs before, so use that as experience, use that as motivation of not getting the job all the way done. There’s going to be adversity in the playoffs. We’ve all been there in this group before.”
Because of its deep postseason experience, this group realizes that the intensity will naturally build as the postseason progresses, so that while they’re focused on the task at hand, there’s value to remaining loose, something this group has prided itself in.
Head coach Jon Cooper offered a glimpse of that levity, walking into his post-practice media scrum, reacting to a stand full of more microphones than normal and asking, “Should I speak into each of these individually?”
“There are certain personalities that make things loose," Alex Killorn said. "Even throughout the season, before big games, it would be a little tighter. Things are going to change a little bit, but we’re still going to be that same group. That’s kind of how we approach games. We’re not all stuck up.”
Revamped Blue Jackets offer big first-round challenge
The Lightning won all three regular-season matchups with Columbus, outscoring the Blue Jackets 17-3, but the team Tampa Bay will face in the first round of the playoffs is much different than the one they last faced in mid-February.
The Blue Jackets upgraded at the Feb. 25 trade deadline, acquiring Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel from Ottawa and defenseman Adam McQuaid from the Rangers. And they finished with a flurry, winning seven of their last eight to claim a postseason spot.
"We haven’t played them for quite some time and they have so many more players now," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "Are they a more talented group? There’s no question. They’ve added some really good players to their group. The one thing I do know is that they’re probably playing their best hockey of the year in this latter part of the season."
Cooper noted late-season wins over Montreal and the Rangers as impressive, and Alex Killorn noted that even the pre-deadline Blue Jackets were a challenging matchup.
"Even though our record’s been pretty good, I remember our last game we played them in Columbus I think the first period it might have been was one of the better periods I’ve seen a team play against us," Killorn said of the Feb. 18 game when Columbus outshot Tampa Bay 20-6. "We’re not taking them lightly. We realize how good of a team they are and it should be a good matchup.”
Pasquale reassigned to Syracuse
Eddie Pasquale is back in the AHL. The goaltender practiced with the Lightning on Monday and was then reassigned to the Syracuse Crunch.
Louis Domingue is healthy; he practiced and then was cleared for a full return after a good session. That means the Lightning doesn't need its third goalie on hand.
Pasquale played two games last week. He had a stellar, 41-save showing against Montreal, doing everything possible to put the Lightning in the game. Then, he made 30 saves against Boston, including 15 in the third period.
Now, the 28-year-old will play in his third Calder Cup Playoffs, as Syracuse has clinched a playoff spot but is still battling for the division.
Watch party Wednesday
The Lightning will host a Game 1 watch party on Wednesday at Curtis Hixon Park immediately after the conclusion of a concert by rock band Cage the Elephant that begins at 5:15 p.m. at the park.
The watch party will include other entertainment, games, food trucks, giveaways and more. Fans attending the game can participate in a pre-game walk from the park to Amalie Arena. The concert will go on on rain or shine, will be open to the public with no ticket required to attend.
Reach Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected] Follow @EddieInTheYard.