TAMPA — The hottest — and arguably the best — NHL team enters Amalie Arena tonight.
The Blackhawks, who snatched the Stanley Cup from the Lightning seven months ago in six games, are back for the first time since Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final.
"There's still a little sting, that's for sure," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "There's no question this game probably means a little bit more."
What makes this showdown sizzle even more than the teams' Oct. 24 meeting in Chicago, a 1-0 Tampa Bay overtime loss, is that both teams are on a roll, the Blackhawks riding a franchise-record 12-game winning streak, the Lightning having won six in a row. That's fitting because Tampa Bay in a lot of ways is still chasing Chicago.
"We'll see what streak continues," captain Steven Stamkos said Wednesday, smiling. "Obviously that's a team we're pretty familiar with. I think they're the best team in hockey right now. It'll be a great test, a good measuring stick to see where we are."
Most teams are likely using the Blackhawks as a model of how to win in the salary cap era. Chicago has three Stanley Cup championships in six years. They build around their star-studded core, starting with forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, a dynamic duo known not only for championships but for having the league's highest annual salary, $10.5 million each.
"The thing I always screw up is I end up saying, 'Tane and Koews,' " Cooper quipped.
There's also star defenseman Duncan Keith, veteran wing Andrew Shaw and goalie Corey Crawford, whom Cooper said might be the most underrated and important part of the core.
"Those players don't grow on trees," Stamkos said.
Despite losing key pieces due to salary cap constraints — as the Lightning may soon have to — the Blackhawks find a way to reload. Have to trade forward Brandon Saad to Columbus? Chicago did in June got in return a No. 2 center, Artem Anisimov. KHL star forward Artemi Panarin took less money than he could have gotten from other teams to sign with the Blackhawks in April, telling the Chicago Sun-Times it's because he wanted to win a Cup. Panarin has spurred Kane to a career year; Kane has 30 goals in 49 games. Thirty percent of the Blackhawks' goals this season have come from players who weren't on last season's championship team.
"They've done an unreal job of pulling the little pieces of the puzzle out and putting the exact same fit in," Cooper said.
The Lightning believes it has its own stellar core, with goalie Ben Bishop; Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman Victor Hedman; Triplets Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, and Stamkos, who is in the final year of his contract.
"Obviously a little bit of it is up in the air right now," Bishop said of that core.
But Chicago sets the bar.
"You can see how hungry they are," Bishop said. "They don't take days off. … They give it every single night. It's something we can learn from. You can definitely see those core guys, they don't let you take the foot off the gas. They don't seem to have those lapses or games where they didn't show up to play."
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Stamkos said part of the Lightning's problem early in the season was it "got caught up in last year." It had plenty of "what ifs" from the Cup final, such as in Game 5, when a collision between Bishop, who had raced out to play the puck, and Hedman allowed Chicago's Patrick Sharp to score the first goal of the Blackhawks' 2-1 win.
"It's not like you can forget that," Bishop said.
Cooper still sees Stamkos, with a chance for the tying goal late in Game 6, ripping a shot destined for an open net but seeing the puck bounce off the heel of the stick of Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook.
There was Bishop's torn groin, and Johnson's broken wrist, the Lightning holding a 2-1 series lead before losing three straight by the scores of 2-1, 2-1 and 2-0.
"(The Blackhawks) won the series fair and square," Cooper said. "But I could have looked at (it) and said a bounce here or there, and we could have swept that series."
The Blackhawks have everything the Lightning wants — the Cup, the contracts, the aura.
"They've got three Cups in six years. We've been to one Cup (final)," Cooper said. "They had their same coach. They've had the same players. We didn't come into our own until the start of last season. They had a five-year head start on us. But if our next few years go the same way theirs did, we'll be pretty pleased."