TAMPA — With their second-round playoff sweep of the Panthers, the Lightning earned themselves eight days off before the start of the Eastern Conference final, which will open Wednesday against the Hurricanes or Rangers.
The Lightning closed out the Panthers on Monday and are using the time off to heal from physical series against them and the Maple Leafs in the first round. But Tampa Bay — winner of six straight games, having returned from the brink of elimination against the Maple Leafs to sweeping the league’s top regular-season team — also wants to keep going.
“Our group needed (rest) regardless of what happens,” coach Jon Cooper said. “We needed it; we needed to heal. We’ve gone through a couple of wars here in our series, so it’s pivotal for us to have this break now.
“The downside of it is no matter what you do in practice, you’re not even going to come close to emulating what goes on in a playoff game: the intensity … the compete. So you do lose that. You just hope you don’t lose your edge. We’ve got enough of a veteran group here, we should be able to get through that.”
With the NHL announcing the start day for the East final late Friday, the Lightning rarely have had so much time off between series. In the 2010-11 postseason, Tampa Bay had nine days between a sweep of Washington in the second round to the opening of the Eastern Conference final against Boston, a series the Lightning lost in seven games.
“I just remember it was a lot of the same,” captain Steven Stamkos said of that break. “You can only do so many drills and practice and stuff and try to mix it up with a little scrimmage and just keep the guys loose but focused.
“You’re not really expecting this much time off at this time of the year. You look at the positives. Guys can get some rest and recover and hopefully get as healthy as we can before we start the next round.”
Assistant coach Jeff Halpern likened the time off to the Lightning’s summer camp before the 2020 playoffs as the season resumed following a coronavirus shutdown. Coaches got advice from coaches in the junior Canadian Hockey League who had gaps between the end of their season and championship round.
“I don’t think there’s a road map for it,” Halpern said. “We’ve drawn on some of the experiences we had, especially a couple of years ago.”
The Lightning are coming off a series that was much more physical than the outcome would indicate. Tampa Bay averaged 20 blocked shots against Florida, and the games had their share of hard hitting.
The physical strain is different from postseasons past, Cooper said. In the 2020 bubble, the Lightning’s run began with a grueling five-overtime win over Columbus.
“We broke down after that as the playoffs went on,” Cooper said.
“There were no real breaks, because we’re in the bubble and they were — and understandably so — game after game after game and back-to-backs, so it was really hard to recover. This (year) is different and different injuries, and probably a little less wear and tear on this one. I don’t know how to describe the injuries, but (we have) stuff that our guys need to heal. We need rest.”
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Coming out of the Panthers series, the Lightning took two days off and then practiced two days before a day off Saturday. They were slated to practice again Sunday. They have several players from AHL Syracuse in town to give them the numbers to hold scrimmages to try to provide some simulation to games. Players including forward Brandon Hagel and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev haven’t practiced to give them rest.
“I think the biggest thing is your legs and the way you want to play,” center Anthony Cirelli said. “No one wants to come out here and start getting some bad habits, but I think just going out there and playing kind of where we left off, just kind of playing that up-pace game, and if you got to dump the puck in, guys are dumping pucks in and forechecking. So just to have that aspect of the game and just going through that obviously helps.”
Stamkos said it has been nice to be at home, especially because the regular season ended on the road and the first two playoff series began on the road. The conference final also will begin on the road, no matter which team the Lightning play.
Defenseman Victor Hedman said there’s value in getting away from the rink to refresh mentally and physically.
“Especially for the body and the mind to kind of get away, I think it’s good, a little refresher, and we’re professional enough,” Hedman said. “We know what to expect come next week. So we’re excited about that opportunity and to see who we’re going to play. We are excited to get back into game action, obviously, but you’re not going to say no when you win four straight to get a few extra days (of rest).”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Lightning vs. Hurricanes or Rangers
Wednesday: at ‘Canes or Rangers, 8, ESPN
Friday: at ‘Canes or Rangers, 8, ESPN
June 5: at Lightning, 3, ESPN
June 7: at Lightning, 8, ESPN
June 9: at ‘Canes or Rangers, 8, TBD*
June 11: at Lightning, 8, TBD*
June 14: at ‘Canes or Rangers, 8, TBD*
Radio: All games 970-AM
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