Monday, July 16, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jones: Lightning keeps its playoff focus

PITTSBURGH

Lightning coach Jon Cooper was midway through his news conference Thursday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, answering some question about defenseman Victor Hedman, when suddenly there was a noise that sounded just a like ...

Uh, something being flushed.

"Don't even tell me what I think that is!" Cooper said.

He laughed. He paused. Then he kept going, giving a rather detailed, thoughtful response to that question about Hedman.

And that right there is a perfect example of this Lightning team.

Distractions. Interruptions. Maybe a big ol' pile of, well, you know what, swirling around it and yet it keeps moving forward, keeps plowing ahead. Keeps winning.

"We're a resilient group," Hedman said.

Over the past two seasons, the Lightning has had major injuries, gut-punch losses, bad breaks and bad bounces. Yet, it has never lost its focus or enthusiasm or confidence. Because of that, it is one of four teams left standing for the second consecutive season.

And here's the latest challenge: a date against the hottest team in hockey. Tonight the Lightning continues its quest for Lord Stanley's Cup with Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final against the red-hot Penguins in Pittsburgh.

Based on its history, don't be surprised if the Lightning loses. It tends to lose Game 1s. That's what it does.

Then don't be surprised if Tampa Bay picks itself up, dusts itself off and goes on to win the series. That's, too, what it does.

Nothing seems to faze this group. Not only does it expect the unexpected, it seems to embrace it.

For example, Lightning forward Brian Boyle was asked what he expects in Game 1.

Boyle smiled, shrugged and said, "Remains to be seen."

Whatever it is, look for the Lightning to handle it.

"Things are going to happen," Boyle said. "We're going to get some breaks. We're going to have things go against us that you can't control sometimes. We understand that after each game that you have to start fresh, you have to start new and continue to try to accomplish the task at hand."

It has done that for two seasons and, for the most part, has seemed to find a way. It has won five of its past six playoff series. Here comes another series. And the Lightning will approach it how? Like every other series it has played.

"We approach every series like we're going to win the series," Cooper said. "That's how we approach it."

This won't be easy. The Penguins are good. Really good. No team has played better of late. They finished the regular season by winning 13 of their final 15 games. They dusted the Rangers in the first round in five games and then knocked out the Capitals, the regular season's best team.

They are loaded up front, so much so that they beat the Caps without any goals (and just three total points) from superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Just goes to show you how deep this Penguins team is. Just goes to show you how good it is. Right, Victor Hedman?

"We do the same," Hedman said.

Hedman wasn't being cocky or dismissive. He was just pointing out that this year the Lightning is doing all this without leading goal scorer Steven Stamkos. Everybody on the team — whether it's top scorer Nikita Kucherov or the fourth liners — is contributing.

The Lightning kind of sounds like the Penguins.

"In terms of being a pretty good team?" Boyle said. "Yeah."

Well, yeah, but also in terms of how it is a good team.

"Ton of depth," Lightning forward Alex Killorn said of the Penguins. "Just like us."

So, yes, the teams are good and similar. But this is clear, too: The Penguins are way better than the first two teams the Lightning played in these playoffs. The Red Wings and Islanders, one could argue, were the two worst teams in the playoffs. Give the Lightning credit for dismissing both in only five games.

But this Penguins team is a whole different animal.

"We know we're in for a tough challenge," Hedman said. "They're a really good team, a fast team, a lot skill on that team."

So much skill that if the Lightning fools around and gives up as many scoring chances as it did against the Islanders, goalie Ben Bishop might not be able to bail out his teammates.

Throw a dart at the Lightning roster and you're bound to hit a key figure in these playoffs. Kucherov and Hedman have been beasts. Tyler Johnson and Jonathan Drouin have been huge. Killorn and Boyle and Jason Garrison have scored critical goals. But the MVP, as always with this team, has been Bishop. And he will have to be the team's MVP in this series.

What a series it will be. These teams are lightning fast; they like to go-go-go. Watching this series might make you feel like you're watching a tennis match. Back and forth, fast as can be.

Most national pundits are picking the Penguins to win it. A few are picking the Lightning. If we get the hockey we are expecting, we all will be winners.

But …

"You never really know how things are going to go until you get into Game 1," Cooper said.

Whatever it is, the Lightning will be ready for it. It always is.

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