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Lightning battle rust versus rest with a full week between games

While Tampa Bay has been waiting, the other three conference semifinals went the full seven games.
Lightning left wing Barclay Goodrow (19) embraces goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) as they celebrate a win over the Bruins on Saturday.
Lightning left wing Barclay Goodrow (19) embraces goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) as they celebrate a win over the Bruins on Saturday. [ COLE BURSTON | The Canadian Press via A ]
Published Sep. 4, 2020|Updated Sep. 5, 2020

A weeklong break in play probably wasn’t the scenario the Lightning expected when they completed their conference semifinal against the Bruins on Monday night.

But it’s the situation they’re in. The Western Conference semifinals ended with Game 7s on Friday night, and the other Eastern Conference semifinal ends with Game 7 tonight.

It’s the first time since 2013-14 that three of the four semifinal series went the full seven games. That has happened only five other times since 1972-73, three of them in the past 20 seasons.

The Lightning are expected to open the East final against either the Flyers or Islanders on Monday in Edmonton after traveling today from Toronto, their home for the past 41 days. Both conference finals and the Stanley Cup final will be played in Edmonton.

A set series schedule and a change of scenery will help the Lightning reset before the conference final begins.

“We got to toss out six itineraries, so that was good,” coach Jon Cooper joked Friday. “You get a little nostalgic here. It’s been weird, but we’re looking forward to moving on because moving on somewhere else, it means that we’ve advanced and we’re doing something right. I think it’ll be a good chance with the new surroundings to be like a reset for us.”

The Lightning spent the early part of the week away from the ice. Thursday afternoon was their first practice since Monday’s game.

Since the Lightning’s exhibition game against the Panthers on July 29, Tampa Bay has played 15 games in 34 days. But things could be worse: On Friday in their West Game 7, the Canucks played their 17th contest in 34 days, dating to their first matchup of the playoff qualifying round against the Wild on Aug. 2.

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Cooper has said that practice is more about keeping players moving than it focusing on new drills or installing new systems. After two days off this week, he said, he was impressed with the level of intensity the players had and how they skated.

Cooper said Thursday it’s impossible to replicate game intensity in practice, so it comes down to keeping the mental side of the game in check. Mindsets are what make managing breaks in play difficult, he said.

“And the longer we wait — we’ve done this before, we’ve had some series won in five games before, and you don’t want to have to wait too long because you don’t want to lose your edge,” he said. “But at this point, right now, rest and recovery is paramount. And we’re getting that. Those days are like gold, so you have to take advantage of that.”

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Lightning forward Alex Killorn said Friday he liked the way the team practiced the past two days. Though the sessions weren’t long, they were high-paced and productive. The Lightning do the best they can to simulate game conditions.

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“You want to make sure in these days you get your rest, because that’s definitely an advantage over teams that are playing,” he said. “But you also don’t want to lose that edge going forward, that edge you had when you were playing every other day.”

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The week’s rest has been helpful for injured players such as Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

Kucherov was hit in the face by a high stick from Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara on Monday and returned to practice Thursday.

Stamkos, out with a lower-body injury suffered in voluntary workouts during the league’s shutdown, has yet to play this postseason. Behind the scenes, Cooper said, Stamkos has still played a part. Cooper said he would have another update on Stamkos before the start of the conference final.

“He’s just as big of a supporter of our group as anybody,” Cooper said. “It’s good to see.”

Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.

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