Still awaiting an opponent, Lightning players focus on themselves in practice

Tampa Bay has simulated games, trying to amp up the physicality in practice in preparation for Wednesday’s conference final start.
Pat Maroon says while a bit of a break between playoff series has been nice, the team is starting to get antsy about not being on the ice.
Pat Maroon says while a bit of a break between playoff series has been nice, the team is starting to get antsy about not being on the ice. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published May 29, 2022|Updated May 29, 2022

TAMPA — The Lightning have been less concerned about their next opponent than about the way they’re playing as a unit, and there might be no better example of that than how they’re preparing for the Eastern Conference final.

They won’t know whether they’ll face the Hurricanes or Rangers until after Monday’s Game 7 of that second-round series, so their practice time has focused on ensuring they’ll still be playing with playoff intensity once they return to the ice Wednesday for Game 1 of the East final following an eight-day break.

No problem, coach Jon Cooper said Sunday.

“I’m more about how we’re doing as opposed to who we’re playing,” Cooper said. “We’ll have enough time to dig into (the opponent). If it’s Carolina, we’ve played them a ton, including the playoffs. And the Rangers, we haven’t played (them) nearly as much, so they’ll be a little bit different. They played two contrasting styles as well. But we’ve played them both in their type of style. So we know what we’re up against.”

The Lightning have ended two of their practices since the end of their second-round series against the Panthers with 25-minute running-clock scrimmages that focused on certain scenarios. They finished Friday’s scrimmage playing 4-on-4 exclusively. Sunday’s practice was a little more physical. The Lightning worked on shutting down 2-on-3 rushes entering their zone and finished with a small-space 3-on-3 drill in the corner that focused on possessing and protecting the puck.

“We’ve just got to keep working on our game and making sure it’s in the right place right now,” forward Pat Maroon said. “Stay focused, stay engaged. (Sunday) it was a really good practice, so that helps, banging around and getting some touches, forecheck, backcheck, that kind of thing that you need.”

After so much time off, the Lightning are ready to get back to playing meaningful hockey. Maroon said he wished the Hurricanes and Rangers were playing their Game 7 on Sunday.

“I just want to start playing,” Maroon said, smiling. “I don’t care. … I’m ready to play. I mean, it’s nice to have a break, for sure. It’s nice to refresh the mind, just get away from the rink a little bit.”

Back to Broadway for McDonagh?

It should be no surprise given that he’s one of the most even-keeled players on the ice, but if defenseman Ryan McDonagh is hyped about the potential of playing the Rangers, his former team, he was doing a good job of not showing it.

“Has it popped in my mind?” McDonagh said. “(The Rangers) did a great job obviously winning Game 6 and forcing a Game 7. You never know what can happen here.”

This is McDonagh’s seventh conference final, including three with the Rangers before he was traded to the Lightning during the 2017-18 season. McDonagh’s teams are 3-3 in conference finals.

“It’d be a pretty unique experience, for sure,” McDonagh said of playing the Rangers. “I’ve played them now in the regular season, but the playoffs in the Eastern Conference final is a big stage.”

Hagel still out, Sergachev returns

Forward Brandon Hagel hasn’t participated in any of the three practices since the Lightning eliminated the Panthers, but Cooper expected him back in time for Wednesday’s game.

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Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev returned to practice after missing the previous two practices and was expected to play in Game 1.

“We’re slowly getting our guys back and trying to get them into the rhythm as we kind of amp up here for whoever we’re going to play,” Cooper said.

Forward Brayden Point, who suffered a lower-body injury in Game 7 of the first round against Toronto, has yet to return to practice.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at 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

* if necessary

Radio: All games 970-AM

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