The Columbus Blue Jackets enter the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs battle tested, the Blue Jackets winning seven of their final eight regular season games to earn a spot in the postseason as the final team in from the Eastern Conference.
A month earlier, the outlook wasn't so rosy for the Blue Jackets. On March 7, following a loss at the Pittsburgh Penguins, its fourth loss in its last six games, Columbus was on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. A strong push down the stretch, however, allowed the Blue Jackets to leapfrog the Montreal Canadiens and sneak past the Habs into the playoffs.
Around the same time the Blue Jackets were scrambling to get back into a playoff position, the Lightning had already locked up their 11th all-time postseason berth, clinching on March 8. Ten days later, the Bolts defeated the Arizona Coyotes at AMALIE Arena to secure the first Presidents' Trophy in team history as the NHL squad with the most points in the regular season and wrap up home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
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The final couple weeks have been a test in patience for the Lightning and their supporters. With nothing tangible left to play for, there could have been a temptation to coast through the end of the regular season and fast forward to the playoffs. But the Lightning remained focused, found motivation in other ways (i.e., aiming for the NHL wins record, personal goals for Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, etc.) and continued to excel down the stretch despite facing teams that were jockeying for playoff positioning or scrambling to get into the dance.
And that's partly why the Lightning feel they're just as battle tested as the Blue Jackets entering Wednesday's First Round Game 1 despite not having the same motivation over the final month of the regular season.
For nearly the length of the season, the Lightning have had the proverbial target on their back as the NHL's top team. They pulled into a tie for first place in the League standings on November 29 and have owned sole possession of first since December 2, one of just three teams to move into first by game No. 26 of the regular season and maintain their position throughout - the previous three teams, the 1998-99 Dallas Stars, the 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings and the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings all went on to win the Stanley Cup.
For pretty much the entire season, the rest of the league has been looking up at the Lightning. And with that, they've taken each team's best shot. Opponents want to test themselves against the league's No. 1 team. They want to prove they're capable of playing with anybody in the NHL. And more often than not, they put together one of their better performances of the season against the Lightning.
That the Bolts were still able to prevail in a lot of those contests and tie the NHL record for most wins in the regular season with 62 is a remarkable achievement considering they were getting other teams' best night in and night out.
"That was a big reason why we were able to have the successful regular season we had," Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "You're not going to win a game picture perfect like you drew it up every time. We had to ad lib and we had to come back a lot of games. We had to play well with the lead and those different situations. We feel like we've been tested in a lot of different fashions, and that's what you want. You want to have that confidence going into the playoffs no matter what's thrown at you, up a goal, down a goal, whatever the situation. We believe in each other, and we believe in the group that's going out there on the ice."
Hockey pundits might say all the pressure is on the Tampa Bay Lightning to win the franchise's second-ever Stanley Cup. After all, the Lightning finished 21 points ahead of second-place Calgary and Boston in the final regular season standings, the 21-point gap between first and second place the largest since the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings finished 27 points ahead of Colorado.
The Lightning were clearly the best team in the regular season, but in the playoffs, everybody starts 0-0. The Bolts' 62-16-4 record means nothing in the postseason, other than for home-ice purposes.
The Lightning will be expected to win a Stanley Cup considering the historic regular season they just completed.
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Now begins the arduous task of going out an accomplishing their ultimate goal
"The pressure has been on us for a while," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "Every team should come into the season expecting to win a Stanley Cup. I don't think anyone truly is sitting there saying, 'Hey, we're happy we made the playoffs. Whatever happens, happens.' No, you want to win. They want to win. We want to win. There's expectations for sure, but none of that has crept in here this year…We don't let that stuff creep in here. We want to go and we want to win. We're not looking past anyone. We've got an opponent in the first round that is a very, very solid hockey team just like we are. It's going to be extremely difficult. This is the most difficult time of the year. If we want to have success, it's going to be hard. But I think we're up for it."
The Lightning have been up for pretty much every challenge they've faced during the regular season, despite the varying motivation levels between themselves and their opponent.
Now they'll have to do it all over again through the two-month slugfest grind that is the NHL postseason.