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One last ride? Lightning realize crowning moment could be end of current group together

As Tampa Bay closes in on a second straight Stanley Cup, it is enjoying living in the moment.
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) celebrates with teammates Barclay Goodrow (19), Yanni Gourde (37) and Mikhail Sergachev (98) after the Lightning's Game 3 win over the Canadiens Friday in Montreal.
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) celebrates with teammates Barclay Goodrow (19), Yanni Gourde (37) and Mikhail Sergachev (98) after the Lightning's Game 3 win over the Canadiens Friday in Montreal. [ CHRISTINNE MUSCHI | Special to the Times ]
Published Jul. 4
Updated Jul. 4

TAMPA — His focus squarely on what’s in front of him, Lightning coach Jon Cooper doesn’t usually have time to look back.

So pardon him for getting nostalgic, as he has been at times over the past few weeks, as his team closes in on history.

The Lightning are one win from winning their second straight Stanley Cup and could become the eighth franchise to win back-to-back Cups.

That also means that when Tampa Bay hits the ice tonight for Game 4 of the Cup final against the Canadiens in Montreal, it could be the last time this group plays together.

The Lightning have been so focused and goal-driven this season, they’re trying to leave time during this run to enjoy the moment.

“You’re around the guys all the time,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “You get on the road and you’re together, the camaraderie is amazing, and you see the sacrifice that every player goes through, whether it’s body-wise or being away from family.

“We are in the finals, we’re in Canada, and we’re back into kind of a bubble life in terms of being at the hotel. So all those different things add up, and you just realize how special a group that we have, and now we want to get the job done just like we did last year.”

After the Game 3 win over the Canadiens on Friday, Cooper reminisced about the 10 years he has known Tyler Johnson, how the center led winning streaks at AHL Norfolk and owned the 2015 postseason with the Lightning, how he always seems to come up big in important moments, such as his two-goal performance Friday.

Cooper also has talked about how much forward Alex Killorn, another player he has coached since their minor-league days, means to this team and how tough it has been for one of the Lightning’s most durable and hard-nosed players to miss the past two games after being hurt in Game 1 against the Canadiens.

History is on the Lightning’s side. Only one team, the 1942 Maple Leafs, has come back from a 3-0 deficit to win in the Cup final. And just four teams have won a playoff series after being down 3-0.

After Game 3, Cooper likened this season to the last day of school in the sense that the same group probably won’t be together next season because of salary cap issues. The Lightning went into this season with major cap issues, and it took hip surgery for Nikita Kucherov and trades for injured players’ contracts to avoid restructuring. They can’t expect that same situation next season.

“I think we all know the realities of the sport,” Cooper said. “Getting over the hump last year and remarkably being able to stick together for one more crack at it, I don’t see the circumstances of what happened this year happening again. I know the players don’t see that. It’s a bond that this group has carried together for the last two years. It’s special. It just doesn’t come around very often. I think the players, they know this. That’s why it doesn’t take a whole ton to motivate this group.”

The Lightning have some great individual talent: the best goalie in the game, Andrei Vasilevskiy; one of the most dynamic playmakers, Nikita Kucherov; and one of the best scorers, Brayden Point. And it has solid franchise cornerstones in Stamkos and Victor Hedman. But just as significant to this group’s quest is that it has come together as a team.

“It’s a lot of fun,” forward Yanni Gourde said. “We’re very focused. We have a goal in mind, but at the same time, we’re enjoying this. Playoff time is the best part of the year, and we’re loving every second of it.”

If the Lightning do win, it will also be because of the way they played defense in front of Vasilevskiy, the body shots players such as defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev took blocking pucks from getting to the net. It will also be because of the impactful third line of Barclay Goodrow, Gourde and Blake Coleman. And it also will be because of the impact of rookie Ross Colton and 10-year veteran Pat Maroon sharing the goal of doing dirty work on the fourth line.

“I think it’s one of those things that you understand the situation,” Stamkos said. “So let’s go out and do as best as we can as a group, because most likely in a cap world, this group probably isn’t going to play together just like the group from last year. Not everyone could come back.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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