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STEVE SIMMONS: It's Stanley Cup or bust for Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning are just the third team in NHL history to win 60 games. - Postmedia News Service

Jon Cooper ran into Joel Quenneville not long ago and their conversation, as it often does, veered in the direction of the 2015 Stanley Cup final.

They talked about how well the Tampa Bay Lightning played and how close they came to beating the Chicago Blackhawks for the Cup.

“I don’t think you ever get over it (losing) until you win one,” said Cooper in a recent conversation. “I can’t speak for the players, but I’m not completely over it.”

Said captain Steven Stamkos: “It was tough, that series. Everyone talks about the lack of experience we had and they had tons of experience. Well, we have tons of experience now. We can use that to our advantage.”

Quenneville has since been fired in Chicago. The Blackhawks have missed the playoffs for the second straight season. The cycle of hockey is changing and this much is obvious: It is now Stanley Cup or bust for the record-breaking Lightning. They are the team to beat in the National Hockey League. There is no one really close to them. There hasn’t been this kind of separation between a first-place finisher and the rest of the playoff teams in more than 20 years.

“When you win 60 games (the Bolts finished with 62), there’s something that has been consistently good about your team,” said Cooper, the coach. “But to be honest, you can’t hang your hat on the 60 wins when you get to the playoffs … If we’re going to go anywhere, we’re going to have to take it to another level.”

They are just the third team in NHL history to win 60 games. That, by itself, is remarkable. And they seem to have just about everything.

They have the deepest scorers in likely MVP Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos, the first team to have three 40-goal scorers on their roster since the 1996 Pittsburgh Penguins had Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Petr Nedved on their roster. Kucherov hasn’t just led the league in points: He led the league with most points scored in the past 18 years. He’s basically 30 points ahead of Stamkos, having his most complete season, and more than 30 ahead of his centreman, Point.

The Lightning has the best defensive players in Norris Trophy candidates Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh.

They lead the NHL in goals scored, in power play percentage, are near the top in goals against and in penalty kill, and could very well have a Vezina Trophy winner in Andrei Vasilevskiy along with an MVP, a coach of the year finalist in Cooper: This team has everything it needs to win — now it has to do it.

“We’ve had some really good runs lately,” said captain Stamkos. “Our goal is to win a championship. Every team should go into the season thinking Stanley Cup or bust but you never know what can happen. We realize the pressure is on us, the expectation is on us. We’ve got to go out and let our play do the talking. We want to win championships. It’ll be the toughest thing that we have to win and have to prepare to face that challenge.”

Leafs coach Mike Babcock, among many coaches, is a great believer in goal differential. He’ll tell you most years that the team with the best goal differential is the best team in the NHL. Tampa has been around the +100 mark the final days of the regular season is within half of that. Only one team in the West, the surprising Calgary Flames, is about +60. When Chicago won the Cup in 2015, they were just over +40. And when Tampa lost the season, Kucherov was a 21-year-old scoring 65-points a season. Now he’s 25 years old scoring twice as many points.

Who could beat Tampa in a playoff series, barring injuries? Tampa fell apart last year in the Eastern Conference Final against Washington, especially late in that series. The Lightning don’t completely understand their unravelling last May: They just know they don’t want to feel it again.

Who could beat Tampa? Maybe defending champion, Washington? Maybe Winnipeg or Calgary, two Canadian entries? Maybe Nashville?

Maybe no one.

Great as this season has been, the Lightning realizes there is another step still to take. Running away with the league only means something big picture if you complete it with a championship run. This is Stamkos’ 11th NHL season and he’s only been close to one Cup. This is the best team he has ever been on. And it fall apart badly against Washington last playoff season.
“We realized we weren’t good enough to win,” said Stamkos. “If you look back on that series, we were fortunate to get it to Game 7. You could tell how badly they wanted it.”

Around the Bolts now, the feelings of excitement, disappointment, possibility are evident. This is their time. They may never get a better shot than this one. It’s their turn to win.

ssimmons@postmedia.com

twitter.com/simmonssteve

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