Lightning seek third straight title as NHL playoffs open

·3-min read
Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos will lead the Lightning into the Stanley Cup playoffs as the Florida club chases a third consecutive National Hockey League title (AFP/BRUCE BENNETT) (BRUCE BENNETT)

Defending champion Tampa Bay will try to become the first team since 1983 to win three consecutive Stanley Cup titles when the NHL playoffs begin Monday.

The Lightning will have an intense first-round matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who haven't won the crown since 1967 but boast the NHL's top goal scorer this season in superstar Auston Matthews, who has 60.

"It's a huge challenge for us," said Leafs center Jason Spezza. "Exactly what we want, exactly what we need. We have a lot of respect for that team and what they've done the last couple years. It's going to be a heck of a series."

Matthews and 12 other Leafs set career highs for points this season, but Tampa Bay has plenty of firepower.

That includes Steven Stamkos, who led the Lightning with 42 goals and finished the season with his 10th hat trick of the campaign in a 6-4 victory over the New York Islanders.

"Anytime you can finish the season on a high (it's good)," Stamkos said.

"We talked about going out and playing a good third period and trying to gain some momentum heading into the playoffs. It was a good response by our group and it's always nice to feel good heading into the fun part of the season."

Not since the Islanders won the NHL title from 1980-1983 has a team won the crown three seasons in a row.

The Lightning won the Cup in two seasons disrupted by Covid-19 and had to make up NHL games in February rather than have players compete at the Beijing Olympics due to the virus, but Tampa Bay is ready for another championship run.

"This team won 51 games and it's a (great) accomplishment, but it's going to be long forgotten once we get to Toronto," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "It's a whole different season now."

It's one the Leafs are acutely aware is different.

Toronto has lost in the first post-season round the past five years. The Leafs have not won a playoff series since 2004. They were upset by Montreal in last year's first round and watched the Canadiens go all the way into the finals before falling to Tampa Bay.

"I feel good about where we are at," Spezza said. "Any time we've faced adversity this year, we've been able to figure out what we're doing wrong and rally around it and figure out our game in short order.

"(For the) playoffs, it's important because there's not a whole lot of momentum from game to game, so it's important to have that mindset and we've been training ourselves that way all season not letting the losses get to us and not getting too high with the wins either, so I think that sets us up well for playoffs."

The best-of-seven playoff matchups begin Monday with Tampa Bay at Toronto, Boston at Carolina, St. Louis at Minnesota and Los Angeles at Edmonton.

The other four first-round playoff series openers are Tuesday with Dallas at Calgary, Nashville at Colorado, Pittsburgh at the New York Rangers and Washington at Florida.

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