Raw feelings from 2017 keep Lightning focused on this year's ultimate prize

Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) celebrates a goal a goal against the Dallas Stars in November at Amalie Arena in Tampa. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) celebrates a goal a goal against the Dallas Stars in November at Amalie Arena in Tampa. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Jan. 7, 2018

OTTAWA — Jon Cooper dropped the "E" word Saturday night during his brief post-game press conference. Then he walked off, as if he wanted it to sink in.


Cooper felt there's some entitlement running through the Lightning, which boasts the league's best record but has dropped back to back games for the first time since mid-November.

And Tampa Bay hasn't looked good in doing so, with some sloppy and, worse, some "non-commitment" in playing in its own end.

It's natural for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations to look ahead.

Cooper called upon the Lightning leaders, who have said this won't be a prolonged problem as it opens the second half of its season Sunday in Detroit.

"We have a great leadership group," captain Steven Stamkos said. "But you add (Chris) Kunitz, you add (Dan) Girardi to that, that's a big dynamic in helping keep the team level-headed. I know we've had success, but there are a lot of teams that have had regular-season success. This group knows what it's about to get to the playoffs and go deep and know that feeling of unfinished business."

For some players, coming close with the Lightning in 2014-15 (losing in the Cup final) and 2015-16 (losing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final) provides plenty of motivation. But what has driven this team since day one of training camp is the humbling, embarrassing summer of 2017 after missing the playoffs.

It's why the Lightning has typically responded well after bad games, why it hasn't lost more than two in a row.

"One thing I think is keeping the pilot light lit is the fact we missed the playoffs last year," Cooper said. "You go to the Cup final, conference final, then you're out.

"It made for a long summer. And I think a lot of guys looked in the mirror, from the top all the way down, including myself. How are we going to rectify this situation and put us back to where we feel we belong?"

Stamkos said the team's core from the playoff runs in 2015 and '16 has matured, and adding four-time Cup champion Kunitz and 12-year veteran Girardi to the mix, it is more prepared this time.

"This group, when we had our success as a team, we were always lacking the experience. Well, we have that now," Stamkos said. "We have a lot of confidence in our ability. But we know we haven't accomplished anything yet."

And that's Cooper's point.

Trade talk

Doesn't sound like there has been a ton of leaguewide interest in Coyotes wing Anthony Duclair, 22, whom the Athletic website reported has requested a trade. For what it's worth, the Coyotes had a scout at a few recent Lightning games.

Duclair, who can be a restricted free agent this summer, could be a low-cost, high-reward boost for Tampa Bay. But Coyotes coaches have not been happy at times with his effort, consistency and in-game focus, reported. The Lightning has experience with 22-year-old wings who request a trade, right?

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Other potential forward targets could be Ottawa's Mike Hoffman and Columbus' Oliver Bjorkstrand. The Blue Jackets and Lightning scouted each other heavily in the season's first half, so Columbus is a team to watch.

Still think the Lightning might look for a potential right-shot upgrade on defense, though those players are difficult to acquire. Columbus has depth on defense. Sounds like Ottawa's Cody Ceci is available.

Captain Carson

Are you curious about why Lightning coaches and players are wearing a Captain America pin? It's a tribute to Carson Belec, 6, son of senior director of team services Ryan Belec. Carson has cancer and recently went through a fourth round of chemotherapy. His prognosis has been good. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Belec family.

Money matters

That D Mikhail Sergachev, 19, played his 40th game with the Lightning on Thursday not only clinched Montreal keeping the second-round draft pick it got in the Jonathan Drouin trade last summer, it also put Sergachev one year closer to free agency. … Think F Nikita Kucherov could break the bank as a restricted free agent in the summer of 2019? G Andrei Vasilevskiy could also warrant between $8 million and $10 million a year when his deal is up after the 2019-20 season. Vasilevskiy would get my vote right now for league MVP this season.

TV talk

Fox Sports Sun is benefiting from the Lightning's historic start. Last month was the network's highest-rated December in team history and its highest-rated month of the regular season since January 2013. The average household rating was 1.9, meaning 1.9 percent of homes in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area were tuned in nightly. Fox Sports Sun's season Lightning ratings are up 5 percent year-to-year, to a 1.65 rating, meaning an average 31,016 homes are tuned in.