TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The NHL playoffs have been a roller coaster of excitement, punctuated by a pair of Game 7s over the weekend to decide the Stanley Cup finalists.
It’ll be Tampa Bay vs. Chicago in the best-of-seven series that begins Wednesday night, with the tradition-rich Blackhawks aiming for a third title in six years.
Some might say it would be better theater or more interesting to have New York represented on the sport’s biggest stage rather than one of the league’s smaller markets, but don’t sell the Eastern Conference champion Lightning short when it comes to hockey appeal.
The NHL is not only alive in the football-crazed South, it’s thriving on the west coast of Florida, where an entertaining band of young stars and a hot goalie have packed Amalie Arena game after game while barreling through three other Original Six franchises to reach the Cup final for the second time.
While the Blackhawks have Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the Lightning feature two-time NHL goal-scoring champion Steven Stamkos and the youthful, but dynamic “Triplets” line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, who are rapidly making names for themselves.
You can debate whether Tampa Bay or the New York Rangers, the team the Lightning eliminated to make the Cup final, would be better for television ratings.
There’s no argument, though, over whether the Lightning belong.
They proved that by winning in what second-year coach Jon Cooper describes as a “multitude of ways.”
By scoring in bunches to give two of the NHL’s top goalies — Montreal’s Carey Price and New York’s Henrik Lundqvist — fits. By overcoming a 3-2 series deficit to oust Detroit in the first round. And, with Ben Bishop joining Patrick Roy (2002) and Tim Thomas (2011) as the only goalies to have two Game 7 shutouts in the same postseason.
“You shine the light bright on our guys, and they’ll just put on sunglasses and walk right through it,” Cooper said. “It’s unreal how they respond, and it starts with our goaltender.”
The Lightning are the first team since the 1988 Boston Bruins to make the Stanley Cup Final after being swept in the opening round of the previous year’s playoffs. Tampa Bay beat Calgary in seven games to win its only NHL championship in 2004.
“I am really proud of what we accomplished,” defenseman Anton Stralman said. “It’s not over yet. We definitely want to take another step.”
Regular-season success doesn’t always carry over to the playoffs. But in Tampa Bay’s case, going unbeaten against Montreal and the Rangers en route to compiling best record in franchise history, gave the Lightning confidence they could do well against Price and Lundqvist when the stakes were raised.
They beat Price twice on the road during the second round, then defeated Lundqvist three times at Madison Square Garden, including 2-0 in Game 7, to win the conference final. The Lightning split a pair of games against Chicago this season.
“Our guys have this attitude that we did it before, why can’t we do it now?” Cooper said.
“This is a special group. We’ve known that all year,” Bishop said.
“We said after (eliminating Rangers), we still haven’t accomplished anything yet. You’re four wins away,” the 28-year-old goaltender said. “That’s going to be probably the hardest four wins of all of our careers. We know there is a lot ahead of us.”
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