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LeBrun: Watch out for the Leafs and Bruins, cause here come the Lightning (again)

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TORONTO — Meet the Lightning.

Quiet. They don’t want anyone to pay attention.

I mean, that shouldn’t surprise any of us. But in an Atlantic Division that has seen the Bruins roar out of the gates with no sign of slowing down and the maple leaves taking off in November and not looking back, it’s like the perennial Stanley Cup finalists have finally decided to raise their collective hand from the back row and say, “Hey, don’t forget us!”

Five straight wins and winners of eight of their last 10 games, the Bolts arrive for a date in Toronto on Tuesday night looking like themselves.

“It’s definitely been a more low-key season, but I think last year was similar too, right? We’re just doing our thing,” Tampa captain Steven Stamkos said Monday after practice at Scotiabank Arena. “We know we have this core here that has been here for a while, been through a lot and can navigate the waters of an 82-game schedule and know how to react.”

There is such a keel on the Lightning. For so many teams, there are fires to put out every month as they navigate the highs and lows of 82 games. The savvy Bolts have that know-how that allows them to put their heads down and focus on preparing their game for the playoffs.

“The one thing for us that I tell guys all the time: it doesn’t matter where we end up. It gets there. You have to come in,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said Monday. This is how you manage your season. We go into every game wanting to win them, but we know that’s not going to happen.

“The guys did a great job navigating our way to the playoffs, and when we get there, we’re good to go.”

So here they are again, it seems. Whether people are tired of it or not.

Looks like much of the hockey world was ready to turn the page on the Lightning after the Stanley Cup Finals loss to Colorado last season, ending Tampa Bay’s bid for a three-peat. Is it the flash fatigue of the fans and the media? Or is it the idea that the salary cap continues to drive players away year after year that creates hope that they will start to come down?

Either way, there’s been so little talk about the Bolts this season. But I mean, they’re not going anywhere. They absolutely have a shot at a fourth straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

Everyone is looking for something new, right? For somebody new to win or somebody new to come in,” Cooper said. But what’s wrong with the team wanting to sit there and maybe throw (the word) ‘dynasty’ around you? That’s what we’re looking for.

In the age of the salary cap, they’re the closest thing to a dynasty right now. Four Stanley Cup finals in eight years, two Cup wins, six conference finals in eight seasons – and constant struggle for nearly a decade.

“It’s hard to do,” Cooper continued. “You can make this race at the top, but to be able to stay there, what these guys have done has been remarkable.

“Now it’s easy for the fans or the media to sleep on it and say, ‘It’s the Lightning again,’ I guess. But that’s not how we feel. We get a lot of satisfaction from going through the people, to get to the top and stay there. Because it’s a hard thing to do. And you never know when it’s going to go away. So cherish it when you’re here. And when you have the chance to ‘stay there, make sure you do.’

Notice how Cooper talks about what “those guys” did. He wants his players to get full credit for what the past few years have produced. But let’s face it: Cooper is one of the best coaches, otherwise the best coach in the NHL. It’s just as important as some of what he transpired.

But what’s also evident with this Lightning team is that no one lives in the past. There’s a hunger in this locker room that equates to some teams winning nothing.

Tampa Bay isn’t ready to turn the page and hand over to the Maple Leafs or anyone else.

Despite losing players year after year to the salary cap, the Bolts find a way to stay near the top.

“Look, we’re definitely a different team than we’ve been in the past,” Stamkos said. But that’s no excuse to throw in the towel. The guys stepped up. We’ve had guys come in and play really well and have had the opportunity to up their game. And we’ve got the goalie that we know we have here.

And no doubt Lightning GM Julien BriseBois will soon announce to the world that he has no cap and doubts he’ll be active before the trade deadline – then go out and add a couple important parts. That’s what he does.

“Our management is doing an incredible job of navigating the little wiggle room there is in the cap to improve our team,” Stamkos said. As players, that’s all you can ask of management.

Julian did an excellent job. It’s up to us as players to put ourselves in a position to go and do it, and you never know. But we think we’re still one of the best teams in the league.

The path in the Atlantic, once again, will be daunting. The first-place Bruins and second-place Leafs look legit. The Lightning had to play seven games with the Leafs in the first round last spring, winning Game 7 here in Toronto.

Bruins, Leaves and Bolts. What a three-team battle is coming in the spring. And let’s see if the Panthers can come back to things.

Obviously, Boston has just taken off at the start of the year. They were on a roll,” Lightning center Antoine Cirelli said. “The Leafs too. They got ahead of us. We are in a difficult division. There are a lot of teams coming in so you have to keep up or even better. But you just have to come in, right?

That’s life in the Atlantic, where Florida won the Presidents’ Trophy last season. It’s a nasty division.

“I mean, it’s been like this ever since this division was created,” Stamkos said. “I remember standing in that hallway talking about how Boston played Toronto every year in the first round and two top-five or two top-10 teams met in the first round. No different last year too (with Tampa Bay-Toronto). That’s the beauty of our sport. Sometimes those are just playoff matchups, aren’t they? Sometimes you compare better to certain teams than to other teams.

“We could have been sitting there last year, going in the first round of Game 7, and Toronto could have made it to the Cup final. I mean, that’s the reality of sports.

Steven, don’t do this to Leaf fans, man.

His point is that parity is real. But so does playoff experience.

“We know we have a group that, if we continue to play well in the playoffs, we have a lot of experience to sit on and rely on in those times,” Stamkos added.

What’s also evident is that despite back-to-back Cup wins in 2020 and 2021 and the elation that comes with it, the dip that also accompanied the loss to the Avs last June still stings this Lightning team.

Which created a new hunger.

‘When you get there, you want to win so badly’, veteran defender Victor Hedman said Monday. We played against an incredible team in Colorado. But for us, at the end of the day, I’m looking at it for me: I’m 32, we have this incredible team, and we can’t pass up this opportunity.

I can’t let this opportunity pass. Think about that statement for a moment. From a guy who’s been with this current Lightning core since day one. The fact that Hedman looks at it that way, not wanting to pass up the opportunity that presents itself, I mean there are teams in the NHL that are trying to put two playoff wins together, not to mention this that Tampa has already done.

But that’s what makes great teams great. The willingness to sacrifice and pay the price. The thirst for winning. You don’t understand everything until you’re at the top.

“Just going through what we’ve been through, winning those two (Cups), the feeling you get; you want to keep being there,” Cirelli echoed. “It ended last year. We’re motivated and can’t wait to get back there. We know it’s a long road, there’s a lot of regular season hockey left. We just have to keep building our game.”

Dynasty? I’ve always found that players don’t think about these things until they’ve been retired for a long time.

“It’s almost one of the things that you know is there and other people are talking about it and you’re not really talking about it in the room,” Stamkos said. Until you are there. Being in last year’s final for the third year in a row, there was some chatter in the media. We were asked before the series against Colorado: “If you win, then that word is really appropriate. You think about it a bit, but like you said, when you live in the moment, it’s hard to look at that.


“We definitely think we can do more races with this group,” added Stamkos. “I said it after we lost in Game 6 last year: who said we were done with that core?”

Hope no one.

(Top photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

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