TAMPA – Going into tonight’s game against the Washington Capitals, the Tampa Bay Lightning are one win away from becoming the first team in the salary cap era to win 60 games in a season. If they run the table the rest of the way, they’ll tie the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens for the single-season points record and four wins in their final five games will allow them to usurp the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings and their record of 62 wins in a season. (Asterisk, included.)
“Honestly, all those things you just told me,” said Lightning winger Yanni Gourde when told of the possibilities, “ I had no idea. I really didn’t.”
There really is no formula to playing out the stretch run of a season when you’ve already wrapped up the Presidents’ Trophy and historically there’s almost zero correlation between how a team does in the final weeks of the season and its chances of winning the Stanley Cup. So the Lightning are going to approach Games 78 through 82 the same way they approach Games 1 through 77. They’re going to try to win them all.
There is no reason to expect the Lightning to rest any of their stars down the stretch or for them to let their foot off the gas. That’s partly because the Lightning are intent on entering the playoffs as the clear frontrunner and the prohibitive favorite in every series they enter. But it’s also clear that coach Jon Cooper has firm beliefs on the way the game should be approached. In reality, only one of their games down the stretch – when they play the second of a back-to-back in Montreal Tuesday night – has playoff implications. But Cooper believes the Lightning owe it to the game to put their best on display every game.
“There’s integrity in the game and I 100 percent believe that comes into play,” Cooper said. “I know we’ve put ourselves in a position where you don’t have to care, but I don’t think you can switch it on and off. And people say, ‘Why don’t you rest guys?’ But resting might be instead of playing 26 minutes, you play 18 minutes. To me, if you start sitting guys out, you’re telling your guys, ‘This player means more to the team than another guy,’ and I don’t ever want to do that. Nobody’s above our team.”
But what is as important to the Lightning now as wins is the process. This is a team that is obviously firing on all cylinders and one that had to scramble to win its division last year when it faltered down the stretch. This last stretch will give the Lightning a chance to not only hone their game, but to find any trouble spots and rectify them going into the post-season.
“We really want to focus on being ready for the playoffs and really being, like, dialed in,” Gourde said.
A good example of the Lightning’s approach came last Monday night in a game against the Boston Bruins. The Lightning entered the third period trailing 4-2 and could very well have taken the rest of the night off, but instead battled back with three goals, including the winner from rookie Anthony Cirelli in the last minute of the game.
“It was a comeback win and in the playoffs, we’re not always going to be winning,” Gourde said. “We’re going to be down a few goals and we’re going to have to battle back and this was a character win. By doing it, it showed how much character we have in this room and if it happened in the playoffs, we’ve been there and we know how to handle it.”
If you want to break it down, tonight’s game is an opportunity for both teams to flex their muscles going into the playoffs before the Lightning finish the season with four straight on the road. Monday night in Ottawa they’ll be playing a team full of young hungry players, then face the Canadiens the next night in a game the home team will have to win. Then they finish the season in Toronto and Boston, one of which will be their second-round opponent if the Lightning avoid a shocking first-round sweep.
So while there might not be much left to accomplish, there’s still plenty for which to play.
“This group is just too competitive and focused on doing things the right way,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “We know the importance of playing with pace right up to the playoffs. Our group is going to try to keep that confidence high and play at the same level we’re accustomed to, and if we do that, we expect to win every game.”