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Lightning look to ride historic season to Stanley Cup championship

Motivated by maturity, past playoff failures after winning 62 games

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

If the Tampa Bay Lightning aren't impressive enough entering the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, listen to what forward Nikita Kucherov said in a quiet moment late in the regular season.

"No pressure," Kucherov said.

No pressure? Really? When everything has built up to this? When anything but the Cup will be considered a failure? When you never know if you will have a chance as good as this again?

"Every team has expectations," Kucherov said. "We've lost few playoffs before, so no pressure. We don't care."

That doesn't mean the Lightning don't care about winning in the playoffs. Oh, they care. What it means is that they're past worrying about it.

The Lightning have dealt with plenty of failure. The past four seasons, they have lost the Stanley Cup Final in six games, lost the Eastern Conference Final in seven games, missed the playoffs and lost the Eastern Conference Final in seven games again.

And here they are, better than ever before, one of the best regular-season teams in NHL history, and they're more motivated to win than scared to lose.

Video: TBL@BOS: Stamkos nets SHG, sets career high in points

"We definitely mature from the past years," Kucherov said. "We've grown as players on and off the ice. We've been through ups and downs with this team, and we've kept a lot of guys on the team. We add some young guys, some players here and there, but I think the group of guys we have, we mature. ...

"I think this year definitely everybody's feeling more easier and confident and comfortable. I can say no pressure. I would say that."

The Lightning won 62 games, tying the NHL record set by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, and had 128 points, fourth in NHL history and four short of the record held by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens.

Perhaps more impressive, they won the Presidents' Trophy by a 21-point margin. No one had won it by more than an 11-point margin since 2005-06, the start of the salary cap era. No one had won it by such a large margin since the 1995-96 Red Wings won it by 27 points.

In other words, at a time when parity is supposed to reign supreme, Tampa Bay did.

But that was not the driving force.

"This opportunity has been here for a few years," center Steven Stamkos said. "We haven't accomplished what we've set out to yet. The regular season is great to have success. It builds confidence. It builds a winning attitude in this room, and you find different ways to win. But we're focused on the playoffs. I mean, that's where we want to thrive. …

Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Lightning clinch Presidents' Trophy

"Everyone's talking about records and comparing us to different teams. Well, it's the regular season. That's just not the goal that's associated with this group inside this room."

Can the Lightning be defeated? Of course. 

The 1995-96 Red Wings lost to the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference Final. Of the 14 teams to win the Presidents' Trophy in the cap era, all but two have not won the Cup: the 2007-08 Red Wings and the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks.

The Lightning will play the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference First Round, starting with Game 1 at Amalie Arena on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; USA, SN360, TVAS). The Blue Jackets were a goal from taking a 3-0 lead on the Washington Capitals in the first round last year. It was that close before the Capitals won Game 3 in double overtime, went on to win the series in six games and went on to win the Cup.

Should the Lightning defeat the Blue Jackets, they will have to play the Boston Bruins or the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round. The Bruins finished third in the NHL this season, the Maple Leafs seventh.

It's going to be hard enough to make the Eastern Conference Final, let alone the Stanley Cup Final, let alone win the Cup.

But the Lightning are well aware of that. After they went 13-0-1 in December, they made sure they tightened up defensively because they were allowing 3.23 goals per game. After Jan. 1, they allowed 2.47 goals per game.

That maturity, that focus on what really matters, combined with their stacked roster is why they were so good in the regular season and will be so tough in the playoffs.

"When you're looking at the teams in the playoffs like the ones we're going to have to play against, you don't have time to fool yourself because the games are so important," forward J.T. Miller said. "So we've got to make sure that we know the right way and just kind of beat it into everybody's game plan and everybody's heads that we're all on the same page, and I think we all understand that when we play the right way that we're really tough to play against."

The pressure?

It's on everybody else.

"I think we just go out there and play," Kucherov said. "We don't care what happens. Let's just go out there and play and do our best."  

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