Lightning wing Alex Killorn said the sting will really sink in when the playoffs open tonight and he's watching on television. ¶ That likely also holds true for Tampa Bay fans, who have grown accustomed to thrilling and tantalizingly fun postseason runs the past two springs. Thousands flocked to watch parties, hundreds greeted players at the airport. It became part of the organization's culture. ¶ "To not have it this year is tough to swallow," coach Jon Cooper said. ¶ Why should you still tune in to the Stanley Cup playoffs? There are plenty of reasons, sizzling storylines and even some former Lightning faces to root for.
Will the Caps finally break through?
The Capitals again won the President's Trophy. They enter the playoffs having won 10 of 12. They have this generation's best goal scorer in Alex Ovechkin and one of the league's best goalies, Braden Holtby. But Washington can't shake the ghosts of previous playoff flops, having not gone past the second round since Ovechkin entered the league in 2004. Is this finally their year? A first-round matchup with the young-and-hungry Maple Leafs should be interesting.
Why root for them? Former Lightning first-round pick Brett Connolly may have finally found a home with the Caps, rejuvenating his career with 15 goals..
Are the Leafs for real?
Who would have thought the Maple Leafs would be in the playoffs and not the Lightning? But Toronto is ahead in its rebuilding plan, young stars like Auston Matthews (40 goals) lifting the Leafs into the playoffs for the first time in four years and first time in a full season since 2004. A matchup with the loaded Caps should make for a short stint. But who knows?
Why root for them? Former Lightning center Brian Boyle, a fan favorite in Tampa Bay, gets another crack at the Cup a couple of months after getting dealt at the deadline.
Can the Penguins repeat?
No team has repeated as Stanley Cup champion since the 1998 Red Wings. Only three have even returned to the final. The Penguins boast the likely league MVP and Rocket Richard Trophy winner in Sidney Crosby and a strong supporting cast. But a neck injury to top defenseman Kris Letang could be a game changer, keeping them from going back-to-back.
Why root for them? With Pittsburgh ending the Lightning's season last year in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, not many will. But their head coach, Mike Sullivan, is a former Lightning assistant.
Some wondered if former Lightning coach John Tortorella would ever get another head coaching job after his messy ending in Vancouver in 2014. But Tortorella has brought the Blue Jackets to the party. And they have the kind of team, along with likely Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, to make a run. Fun first-round matchup pitting Tortorella vs. his former Lightning assistant Mike Sullivan. The two remain close, but Sullivan says of the series: "I might have a conversation with him before it all starts. Once the series starts, he's going to be worried about his team, and I'm going to be worried about mine."
Why root for them? Give Tortorella, who led the Lightning to its only Cup title in 2004, another shot.
McDavid's first foray
Connor McDavid is arguably the league's best player not named Sidney Crosby. He'll likely be the face of the NHL for years to come. And now the electrifying, must-see TV talent is making his first postseason appearance with the Oilers, who are here for the first time since 2006.
Why root for them? It would be a heck of a lot of fun getting to watch McDavid for two months on the biggest stage.
My Stanley Cup pick: Blackhawks over Capitals
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @TBTImes_JSmith.