The Tampa Bay Lightning are earning themselves advantages

Running away with the Presidents' Trophy race isn't just for show: by locking in home ice throughout the playoffs, the Bolts are following a franchise template that really helped the first Stanley Cup champ from Tampa Bay.
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The first time the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup, Dave Andreychuk was the captain hoisting the chalice. Fifteen years later, Andreychuk is now VP of corporate and community affairs with the franchise – and he’d love to see the current Lightning lifting up the trophy this summer.

No doubt Tampa Bay has been the class of the NHL this season, running away with the Presidents’ Trophy race and at least starting a conversation on where this edition of the team belongs in the pantheon of all-time great squads in league history – but it will all be for naught if it doesn’t end in a title. But Andreychuk sees two advantages for his franchise heading into the playoffs and both fall under the umbrella of planning: home-ice advantage and load management.

When Tampa Bay won its first Cup, the Lightning went into the post-season as the top seed in the Eastern Conference, guaranteeing them friendly Game 7s until the final. After two quick series wins over the Islanders and Canadiens, the Bolts had a hard-fought test against Philadelphia in the conference final and that home ice came in handy.

“We lose Game 5 at home, our backs are against the wall for Game 6,” Andreychuk recalled. “The Cup is in the building: to me, that was the greatest game I’ve ever been involved in. I had a front-row seat to see guys lay it on the line. We win in double overtime. And again, we talked about working all year long to get a Game 7 at home.”

Tampa won that test and as it would happen, they would also earn home ice in the final against Calgary. This year’s squad will have home ice right through to the final and that could prove crucial against tough, experienced squads such as Boston, Washington or Pittsburgh.

Andreychuk also sees some very strategic planning in Tampa Bay when it comes to individual ice time. He noted that star defenseman Victor Hedman has seen his load drastically reduced this season and the numbers bare that out. Hedman has gone from 25:51 per game last season (which was top-five in the NHL) to 22:44 this year (putting him 39th overall). Obviously Hedman is still an amazing player, but that easing of responsibilities could have very positive ramifications in May and June. In the past two years, no forward on the Bolts has hit the 20-minute mark in average ice time; Nikita Kucherov has the heaviest load right now at 19:43, which is still very manageable.

This is a luxury afforded to the team by its depth; the trust that coach Jon Cooper can put in players such as Erik Cernak or Anthony Cirelli will hypothetically help down the line when everyone is tapping that last bit of adrenaline out of their system. Because the Bolts know this year’s mission goes well beyond regular season excellence.

“Exactly,” Hedman said. “We’re having a really good year, but it’s just part of the process. It’s 82 games to get ready for the fun stuff.”

What wouldn’t be fun? Repeating last year’s collapse, when the high-octane team failed to score a goal in Games 6 and 7 against the eventual champs from Washington. But again, it’s all part of the process for a team on a mission.

“They’re battle-tested,” Andreychuk said. “Inside, they talk a lot about that; they’re an experienced team. And we’ve seen it all year; not much fazes them. They have the talent to know they can come back and they’ve done it numerous times. They know teams will come after them and it will be no different in the playoffs. Mentally, this team is a lot stronger than they were in the past.”

And now it’s just a matter of proving it when the pressure is at its apex. At the least, the Bolts have put themselves in the best position possible. The next step is execution.

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