TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning aren’t just trying to beat the Blackhawks.
They’re trying to be the Blackhawks.
“We’re a few years behind them,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said before Thursday’s Stanley Cup Final rematch. “I can’t sit here and predict we’re going to win three Cups in the next six years, but we feel we have the ability to win hockey games at the same rate.”
There have been many teams that have tried to model themselves after the Hawks in an attempt to emulate their sustained success. The Lightning face a potentially franchise-altering decision with star forward Steven Stamkos set to become an unrestricted free agent and possibly become the highest-paid player in the league. But if they can keep together the young, talented group they have — starting with Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov up front, and Victor Hedman on the blue line — they’re in position to be one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams for a long time.
Cooper pointed to not only the Hawks’ stars, but their more unheralded players that keep the team on top. Of goaltender Corey Crawford, he said: “He’s a winner. He wins more than any other goalie in the league. When that team breaks down a little bit, that’s the guy that keeps them in it.”
Then, after rattling off the names of all the Hawks big-name stars, he said this of defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson: “You don’t give any thought to how Hjalmarsson can play until you play against him. And then you sit there and say, how is that guy not in the All-Star game, every year? Honestly, he’s that good.”
The defending Eastern Conference champions enter Thursday’s game on a six-game win streak and have moved within three points of first-place Florida in the Atlantic Division. But as the Hawks have figured out over the past few years, the standings don’t matter much. It’s just about making the playoffs. That’s a lesson the Lightning are trying to take to heart as they chase not only the Stanley Cup, but sustained dominance.
“You look at Chicago, they don’t finish first in their division every year,” Cooper said. “They just make the playoffs every year. Then once they get in, they go about their business. That’s something we’re trying to develop here. … Let’s just make sure we’re getting in every year. Then once we get in, let’s make our hay like we did last year. I’m sure teams sit there and get to the playoffs and they’re like, ‘Oh, we drew Chicago. That sucks.’ There’s your aura right there. That’s what we want to get to — the point where [other teams say], ‘Oh wow, we drew Tampa. Not too excited about this.’”