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Steven Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning understand the difficult challenge that lies ahead for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
The team’s quest for a third straight NHL title begins on the road Monday night against the Auston Matthews-led Toronto Maple Leafs, who had a terrific regular season but have yet to prove they have what it takes to be successful in the playoffs.
While the Lightning’s experience on hockey’s grandest stage has served them well during back-to-back championship runs, the Maple Leafs haven’t won a playoff series since 2004. This is the first-ever postseason meeting between the Atlantic Division rivals.
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“It’s been a long-time coming. We haven’t played them. For me, it’s not going to change anything. We’ve got a job to do and that’s to win some games here in the playoffs no matter the opponent,” said Stamkos, who grew up just outside of Toronto rooting for the Maple Leafs.
“For sure there’s going to be a lot of hype coming into this round. But our group is a mature group,” the Lightning captain added. “We know how to handle a lot of different situations come playoff time, and we’ll have to lean on our experience here.”
With Matthews becoming the first player to score 60 goals in a season since Stamkos did it 10 years ago, Toronto set club records for victories (54) and points (115), finishing second in the Atlantic behind the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida Panthers.
Tampa Bay got a team-leading 42 goals and 106 points from the 32-year-old Stamkos and finished third in the division with 51 victories and 110 points.
“You sit back, we have an off day and say: ‘Wow, this team won 51 games and that’s a hell of an accomplishment,’” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “But it will be long forgotten once we head to Toronto because it’s a whole different season now.”
Toronto’s playoff failures over the past two decades include squandering a 3-1 series lead against Montreal in the opening round in 2021.
The team returned this year, determined to learn from its mistakes and to not get caught up in the day to day highs and lows of the regular season.
Or, lingering outside chatter about Toronto’s postseason futility.
“Everyone has experience and learns from the past, good or bad,” Toronto captain John Tavares said. “You have to grow from that, whether it’s as a hockey player or even as a person.”
“There’s always topics of conversation floating around,” Matthews offered. “There’s only so much that we can control.”
The Maple Leafs embrace the challenge of measuring their progress against the two-time defending Cup champions, whose star-studded lineup includes Nikita Kucherov, Bryaden Point, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy, the winning goaltender in every Tampa Bay playoff victory during its back-to-back run.
“We have absolute respect for the Tampa Bay Lightning in what they’ve accomplished and who they are,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Yet we have great belief in our own group. We’re ready for a battle.”
The Lightning are trying to become the first team to win three consecutive Stanley Cup titles since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980-83.
The Maple Leafs set franchise records with 54 wins, which was five more than the previous best. They finished 115 points, 10 more than their previous high and seven behind the Atlantic Division-winning Panthers.
Matthews is the first Toronto player to score at least 50 goals since 1993-94. He finished with a club-record 60 in 73 games.
Goaltender Jack Campbell, meanwhile, was a first-time All-Star.
The Lightning won five of six games down the stretch to enter the playoffs on a little bit of a roll, with Vasilevskiy finishing with 39 wins — tied with Florida’s Sergei Bobrovsky for the most in the NHL.
Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly said teammates spoke a lot over the summer and into training camp about what happened in last year’s playoff, but didn’t harp on the subject.
“It’s a little bit of a balancing act … you want to address it and you want to learn from it, but you also want to move on,” Rielly said.
“I don’t think that’s anything that anyone in our room’s going to look back on fondly unless we right the ship and accomplish the ultimate goal,” he added. “We’ll hopefully be able to look back and say, ‘You know, that was a big turning point for us.’ But until that happens, you almost want to block it out and deal with it later.”