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Long playoff seasons of past could be wearing on Lightning now

Alex Killorn has played 243 games since the 2014-15 season, tied with Lightning teammate Nikita Kucherov for fourth-most in the league.
Alex Killorn has played 243 games since the 2014-15 season, tied with Lightning teammate Nikita Kucherov for fourth-most in the league.
Published Jan. 25, 2017

CHICAGO — Just three players in the NHL have appeared in more games the past three seasons than Lightning wing Alex Killorn.

And one of them is teammate Valtteri Filppula.

In fact, of the top 10 players in games played since 2014-15 season, including playoffs, five are from Tampa Bay, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The back-to-back lengthy playoff runs by the Lightning were electrifying for fans and great for business.

But you wonder how much residual wear and tear, both mentally and physically, has impacted the Lightning, which entered Tuesday's game in the Eastern Conference cellar. Tampa Bay has been ravaged by injuries, having to use 34 players. The World Cup and resulting condensed schedule made for a perfect storm after another short summer.

"Long playoff runs, it takes its toll," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. "Guys are human. They're not machines. Everybody looks at these sexy numbers, how many games they've played. Well they should factor in playoff games, they count almost as double."

Sutter should know. His Kings won two Stanley Cups in a three-year span (2011-13) but missed the playoffs in 2015 and were ousted in the first round last spring. The Lightning's opponent Tuesday, the Blackhawks, has won three Cups since 2010 but hasn't reached the Cup final in back-to-back seasons in that stretch. Veteran forward Marian Hossa, 38, has said Chicago's first-round exit last spring was actually beneficial, allowing time to recharge.

"In the regular season, maybe sometimes you might be a little bit fatigued," said Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, last year's Norris Trophy winner. "You played so many games over those three years, going into every season it seemed like we had no break in the summer."

This isn't meant as an excuse, and the Lightning isn't using it as one. But all those games add up, Filppula second since 2014-15 with 247, Killorn fourth at 243, tied with Nikita Kucherov. Brian Boyle is at 242, Andrej Sustr 239. Sutter believes the World Cup and condensed schedule has played a role in the amount of injuries this season. You don't have to tell Tampa Bay, which has missed Steven Stamkos (knee surgery) and Ryan Callahan (hip) for good portion of this season.

Boyle said the bigger hurdle can be mental after several playoff runs.

"I think at this point this year, everyone can kind of say it's been tough because of how the schedule has played out," Boyle said. "The highs you feel playing in a Cup final, a conference final, they're hard to simulate in the regular season. But I think it's just the way you motivate yourself and take care of yourself.

"And we should be a motivated team right now."

Killorn said he adjusted his offseason training last summer, having learned from the short summer in 2014-15, when the Lightning lost to the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup final. Killorn said he took more time off to rest, his workouts more about maintaining conditioning than strength training.

"If you keep (going on long playoff runs), your body gets used to it," Killorn said. "You have to do a better job of taking care of yourself."

The Lightning has a three-day All-Star break coming Friday through Sunday, plus a five-day bye week in mid February. There could be a much longer break this spring if Tampa Bay's season ends without playoffs. Only two teams since 1993-94 ('97 Senators, '09 Blues) reached the postseason after being in last in their conference this late in the year.

"I look at it two ways," Cooper said. "If you're sitting in our position now, and out of a playoff spot, you can sit here and say, 'We've played so much hockey, that must be the reason.' Or you're in the playoff spot and say, 'Look at all the experience these guys have gained, they know how to handle it.

"I don't know if it makes a difference. If you ask me, I'd rather play in June all day every day than be out in April."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.