By Stephen Whyno
Facing the prospect of a second consecutive Stanley Cup celebration in isolation in Canada, the Tampa Bay Lightning insist they’re focused on completing a sweep of the Montreal Canadiens and not the prospect of winning at home in front of friends and family.
The Lightning can sweep the Canadiens out of the Cup Final in Game 4 Monday night. Family members were not given an exemption by the Canadian government to cross the border for the possible festivities, so it would be reminiscent of September when Tampa Bay won in the bubble in Edmonton, Alberta.
“That (thought) will never sneak into our locker room,” coach Jon Cooper said Sunday after an optional practice. “It’s about winning. It’s not about where you win. And that’s all we care about.”
Cooper and captain Steven Stamkos said the team has learned from previous situations losing close-out games, and knows better than to take anything as a given in the playoffs. The Lightning lost to the Islanders and Stars last year in the first chance to eliminate each opponent and did the same last round against the Isles.
“We’ve been in this position before: We understand the magnitude of the game,” Stamkos said. “We’re focused on the start of next game. All those other things work themselves out. You never know what’s going to happen in the course of a game or a series, so we’re focused on our start next game.”
That’s a mature approach for a veteran group which has endured its share of postseason heartbreak before breaking through. Each crushing loss in a game or series prepared the Lightning for this opportunity.
“There’s a mindset that has developed with our group,” Cooper said. “It’s a learning process to go through that. By no means does that guarantee any results on what’s going to happen in (Game 4). But I know our mindset’s different going into these games, in these close-out games, as they have in the past.”
Tampa mayor Jane Castor offered the counterpoint that she wanted the Lightning to win at home.
“What we would like is for the Lightning to take it a little bit easy, to give the Canadiens just the smallest break, allow them to win one at home and then bring it back to the Amalie Arena for the final and the winning of the Stanley Cup,” she said Sunday. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. But they are playing some amazing, amazing hockey.
Again. A vast majority of players, coaches and staff also know what it’s like to win the Cup in a quarantined bubble and then fly home to celebrate in Tampa. At least this time there will be some fans in the building.
The uninvited guest for the Lightning’s likely Stanley Cup party is named Elsa, the tropical storm tracking toward Florida and scheduled to make landfall sometime Tuesday. Stamkos and Co. are worried about hockey first with an eye on wrapping this series up and getting home before the storm.
“Both teams understand the situation that they’re in,” Stamkos said. “We’re excited for the challenge, and all those things will take care of itself. Obviously a couple wrinkles with the situation that we’re in here in Canada and then the storm back home. We want to make sure everyone’s safe, but at the same time this group is focused on the game.”
A tweak to Montreal’s power-play units at practice could foreshadow at least one lineup change for a desperate team facing elimination. Defenseman Jeff Petry replaced Erik Gustafsson, which could mean Gustafsson being a healthy scratch with Alexander Romanov or Brett Kulak drawing in.
Coach Dominique Ducharme would say only, “We’ll see.” And Petry said he was not given a reason for the switch.
“We just went out, we knew we were going to work on the power play and that’s the units they drew up,” Petry said. “That’s the unit I’ve worked with before.”
When Cooper was asked for the daily update on injured forward Alex Killorn, who has missed the past two games, he joked: “How does that work? Do you guys like rock paper scissors?” Then he parroted Ducharme’s “We’ll see” response.
Yanni Gourde is one of three Quebec natives on the Lightning roster, along with defenseman David Savard and forward Mathieu Joseph. Savard is looking to win his first NHL championship after joining at the trade deadline. Joseph is getting to play because of Killorn’s injury, and after being a healthy scratch in the bubble and for much of this playoff run.
Gourde gets the chance to win his second Cup a 2 1/2-hour drive from his hometown of Saint-Narcisse-de-Beaurivage, a village of 1,100 people.
“I’m really excited but I’m trying to leave all that behind,” Gourde said in French. “I’m focused on my first shift for Monday and what I can control. Sorry to be a bore with my answers to your questions. I feel a bit bad to give you all the same answer here. But that’s the way I feel and that’s the right approach for me.”