BRANDON, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Lightning are fully aware of the challenges they will face trying to defend Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin in the Eastern Conference Final.
Tampa Bay has been a regular stop for Ovechkin during his 13 seasons in the NHL, especially when the Capitals and Lightning were in the Southeast Division from 1998-2011. Ovechkin's 43 goals against the Lightning are the second most he has against any team in the League, behind the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets franchise (47), and his 85 points in 66 regular-season games against the Lightning are tied with the Carolina Hurricanes for second most. Ovechkin has 91 points against the Thrashers/Jets.
The Lightning will host the Capitals in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVAS).
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"What I like about his game is he just has a mentality to score, he's always shooting the puck," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of Ovechkin. "In today's game, there are a lot of guys who are pass first, and there are some shooters first, but in the end they want to pass. [Ovechkin] shoots it and he shoots it from everywhere he gets it. He shoots from all different angles, kind of gets labeled as that one-timer spot (in the left face-off circle), but that's just the power play. Look at some of his goals he scored, it just seems like he's getting better with age."
Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov has admired Ovechkin, 32, for years; they played together for Team Russia at the World Cup of Hockey and have been friendly at All-Star Games.
Video: WSH@PIT, Gm3: Ovechkin bats puck in for late lead
Kucherov said it's exciting for fellow Russian players on the Lightning (goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev) to share the ice with Ovechkin and to have more eyes on some of the country's top players.
"When he came in the League, he was the best player, and I mean he's still the best player," Kucherov said. "Everybody would talk about him and I definitely wanted to be in his spot one day, scoring goals. He's a great example for young kids and someone to look up to.
"I think it's great for Russia to see the young guys come into North America and go through the CHL, AHL and then make it to the NHL. It's great to see and to see how the kids want to be in the best league in the world."
Kucherov said it's natural for people to compare him to Ovechkin because of their roots, but they play different styles. That doesn't mean Kucherov isn't envious of Ovechkin's ability to produce at the rate he has throughout his career.
"The puck always seems to find him in the right place," Kucherov said. "He always knows where it's going to be. There's a reason why he's scored so many goals consistently year after year. It's tough to be that consistent over time, and he's done it. It's just impressive. He's the greatest one, and it's fun to watch him year after year stay at the same level and raise his level. It's great that he's from Russia."
Video: PIT@WSH, Gm2: Ovechkin whips wrist shot by Murray
This will be the Lightning's third trip to the conference final in the past four seasons, but Cooper said he notices a more confident group this time. Tampa Bay lost Game 7 to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 before losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. The Lightning failed to qualify for the playoffs last season.
"There is an obvious excitement about being here again, but it's kind of a different excitement; it's more of a 'We're on a mission' excitement," Cooper said. "It's a little different than it was three years ago with this same group. There is a confidence about them in the way we are playing, how we've arrived at where we are right now. A lot of that has to do because they have been there before.
"Now you get the chance to take a step back and what has worked for us before and what hasn't. If there was a panic button in 2015, there doesn't seem to be one in 2018."
Lightning forwards Ryan Callahan, Ondrej Palat and Cedric Paquette did not practice Tuesday for maintenance reasons, but Cooper said he expects them to be ready for Game 1. Forward Adam Erne, who has missed the playoffs because of a lower-body injury, is practicing and is close to returning.
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