The Tampa Bay Lightning hope they completed their study of the psychology of winning the Stanley Cup when they suffered through more misery in the 2018 Eastern Conference final.
“We ran into a Washington team last year and it felt like once they got over that hump of beating Pittsburgh last year that they could feel that it was their time,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “We saw that in Game 6 and Game 7 in the way they responded.”
The Lightning were one win from reaching the Stanley Cup Final last May, but the Capitals won Game 6 at home and then won Game 7 in Tampa to take a giant step toward winning their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
“With the expectations so high for our group, we came into this season thinking this is our year,” Stamkos said. “It’s our turn.”
Could their solution be as simple as developing a more pronounced swagger?
It can be when a team has the Lightning’s talent. At 39-11-2, the Lightning have a 13-point lead in the Atlantic Division and a seven-point lead for No. 1 in the NHL. They lead the league in offense, averaging 3.87 goals per game.
Nikita Kucherov leads the NHL with 80 points, and Brayden Point (currently day to day) is tied for sixth in goals with 30. Stamkos has 59 points in 52 games. It’s easy to see why this team leads the NHL with a 29.4 percent power-play efficiency.
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“For a team to have as much success in the playoffs, but not winning it all, we have a bit of chip on our shoulder,” Stamkos said.
In one of Jon Cooper’s first talks to his Lightning players in 2013 when he was hired as coach, he talked about his hope that the team would play with a swagger.
Their NHL-leading +59 goal-differential speaks to their dominance. The Toronto Maple Leafs (+39) are the only other Eastern Conference team within 30 of them.
“There is still unfinished business for us to start talking about what the difference is this season,” Stamkos said.
The caution is understandable, but there is no denying that the Lightning are more polished and formidable than they were in the past. They’re certainly more confident than they were when they reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 and lost to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Stamkos said everyone has grown on the job, even Cooper, who is one of the league’s most personable coaches. It’s a profession where gruffness is expected, but players find it easy to talk to Cooper.
“He’s not a yeller or screamer, he gains respect in different ways,” Stamkos said.
He gains respect because his teams are well-prepared and competitive. He is an excellent motivator.
“He has a lawyer background,” Stamkos said, “so he knows how to work a crowd.”
The big question surrounding the Lightning is whether general manager Julien BriseBois will make a move to strengthen their chances. The Maple Leafs have already added a top-four defenseman, and the Penguins made a trade for Nick Bjugstad.
“Everyone thinks you have to add someone to put yourself over the top,” Cooper said. “I don’t think necessarily that’s true. In all of these years we have been together, we really haven’t made big deals at the deadline, except last year.”
The Lightning added Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller from the New York Rangers last February, and that deal is helping the team this season.
Another thought is the Lightning are going too strong to risk disrupting their chemistry.
“There is something to chemistry,” Cooper said, adding, “I think if nothing at all happens (at the Feb. 25 trade deadline), I don’t think anyone would lose an ounce of sleep.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Kevin Allen on Twitter @ByKevinAllen