Two-time Cup champion Lightning faces rare circumstances

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

For a team accustomed to winning – not just the Stanley Cup in the last two years but at a high level in the regular season – it has been a challenging few weeks. The back-to-back defending champions have lost nine of their last 15 matches, with three separate three-game skids facing the kind of adversity they haven’t experienced in quite some time.

“It seems like every mistake is ending up behind our net right now, so it’s hard not to be discouraged,” Stamkos said after a 4-3 loss in Washington on Wednesday night. “We just have to keep working our way through this. We have a lot of experienced leadership in this team that we know we can work with to get out of this.”

The big question is whether the Lightning can use the right lessons from last month and apply them when the playoffs begin in early May. After coaching Tampa Bay on several long runs, missing the postseason altogether, enduring a surprising first-round sweep, and then hoisting the cup twice, John Cooper understands that the answer is clear until after the regular season. Will not done.

“We can only wait and see if it’s going to help, but it tests you mentally and physically,” Cooper said. “The boys have played a lot of hockey over the years. And especially in these last two months, we’ve asked a lot of them. Sometimes it becomes little more than just the physical part of it.”

There has been some roster turnover, but many of the main players now have another 70 games in the regular season after a combined nearly 50 in the last two playoffs. Since August 2020, no team has played more hockey than the Lightning.

With that comes fatigue, but also perspective on what the regular season means in the grand scheme of trying to win a championship. The players have a good hold on him now.

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

As the NHL’s top regular-season team in 2018-19, winning the President’s Trophy and setting the record for 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 few adversities until the playoffs that it lacked the ability to handle it.

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

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

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

Cooper called it an “important” game, and something more like Tampa Bay might try for a three-peat.

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

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Follow AP Hockey writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter https://twitter.com/SHowno

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