Two-time Cup champion Lightning facing rare bit of adversity

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (34) congratulates right wing Mitchell Marner (16) after Marner's third period goal during an NHL hockey game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Monday, April 4, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)

Steven Stamkos notices a different feeling around the Tampa Bay Lightning.

For a team accustomed to winning — not only the Stanley Cup the past two years but in the regular season at a high level — it has been a challenging few weeks. The back-to-back defending champions have lost nine of their last 15 games, with three separate three-game skids handing them the kind of adversity they have not experienced in quite some time.

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“It feels like every mistake right now is kind of ending up in the back of our net, so it’s tough not to get frustrated,” Stamkos said Wednesday night after a 4-3 loss at Washington. “We just have to continue to work our way through it. We have a lot of veteran leadership on this team that we know we can work our way out of it.”

The bigger question is whether the Lightning can harness the right lessons from the past month and apply them when the playoffs begin in early May. After coaching Tampa Bay on several long runs, missing the postseason entirely, enduring a stunning first-round sweep and then hoisting the Cup twice, Jon Cooper understands the answer won’t be clear until after the regular season.

“We can only wait and see if it’s going to help or not, but it tests you mentally and physically,” Cooper said. “The boys have played a lot of hockey over the last couple years. And especially these last two months, we’ve asked a lot of them. Sometimes it becomes a little bit more than just the physical part of it.”

There has been some roster turnover, but many core players are now 70 games into another regular season after almost 50 over the past two playoffs combined. No team has played more hockey since August 2020 than the Lightning.

With that comes fatigue but also the perspective of what the regular season means in the grand scheme of trying to win a championship. Players now have a good grip of that.

“There’s some uncomfortable moments for this group, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Stamkos said. “You want to try to work out the kinks as you go towards the playoffs. At the end of the day, that’s where teams are judged, right? You could have the best regular season in history, like we’ve shown, and it means nothing come playoff time.”

Winning the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team in 2018-19 and setting a record for the most points accumulated did little for the Lightning when they were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. That group faced so little adversity until the playoffs that it lacked the ability to handle it.

The experience of that series undoubtedly played some role in Tampa Bay winning it all the past two years. But it’s not like players are simply writing off their recent performances thinking they can flip a switch against Florida, Carolina or Boston when the playoffs start.

“You always want to win games, and when it doesn’t go your way, maybe you’re second-guessing decisions on the ice and we don’t have time for that,” said defenseman Victor Hedman, who was playoff MVP in 2020. “We want to go out there and execute and be clear in our minds in what we want to do. And when we’re clicking on all cylinders, we know we’re a tough team to beat. So for us it’s all about going out there with the confidence that we’re going to win games.”

The immediate challenge is a visit from the Bruins on Friday night. The Lightning’s loss at the Capitals dropped them into a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, and while there are no easy matchups, it’s not a spot they want to be in without home-ice advantage.

Cooper called it a “pivotal” game, and a few more like it stand in the way before Tampa Bay can even try for the three-peat.

“The boys got to dig in here,” he said.


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