EDMONTON, Alberta — After winning to advance to the Eastern Conference final, the Tampa Bay Lightning went a few days not knowing when, where or who they would be playing next.
Because of the unique circumstances of the NHL playoff bubbles, there was a chance they’d remain in Toronto to open the next series despite the initial idea of the entire final four happening in Edmonton.
They finished off Boston in five games, but the three other second-round series that started 3-1 all went to a Game 7, leaving the Lightning to sit around, wait and wonder before finding out late Thursday night they will play Game 1 in Edmonton on Monday.
“Got to throw about six itineraries out,” coach Jon Cooper said, “so that was good.”
Who they face is still to be determined by Game 7 between the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday night, but the Lightning knowing the when and where gives them the peace of mind to fly to Edmonton hoping they can recapture the rhythm that got them through the first two rounds in five games each.
“There’s no hiding the fact that we’re going to go a week between games,” Cooper said Friday. “To replicate the intensity that we had the two previous series, it’s hard to do. You’re definitely not going to do that in practice. We’ve just got to depend on the mental side for us.”
Tampa Bay is now fighting a physical and mental battle that’s the opposite of two teams going through a long, grueling playoff series. Players didn’t take the ice for a couple of days to rest up, and when practice resumed, they paid particular attention to what it might take to handle a weeklong layoff.
“In practice by imitating game-like situations is the only way you can kind of stay ready,” forward Alex Killorn said. “You want to make sure in these days you get your rest just because that’s definitely an advantage over teams that are playing. But you also don’t want to lose that edge going forward, that edge that you had when you were playing every other day.”
Islanders coach Barry Trotz said his team’s nine-day layoff between the first and second round last year contributed to losing that edge. The Lightning understand that challenge. They had a week off in 2018 after beating New Jersey in the first round, beat Boston in five and then lost to Trotz’s Capitals in a seven-game East final that they led 3-2.
Drawing from that experience, the first couple of practices back were short and up tempo and exceeded Cooper’s expectations.
“Usually after two days off, regardless, it’s a little bit of a sloppy mess for the first 15 minutes,” he said. “I was impressed with the execution. Guys were snapping it around.”
The Lightning get an added advantage over the winner of the Islanders-Flyers series in that they get to settle into the Edmonton bubble a day earlier and can practice Sunday while their opponent is traveling. Cooper acknowledged some feelings of nostalgia about leaving the Toronto locales that have become “home” for the past six weeks, but change is good.
“We’ve been kind of in the same situation, going to the same restaurants, same everything for the past I don’t know how long it’s been,” forward Tyler Johnson said. “But at the same time, we haven’t been (to Edmonton) yet, so we don’t know exactly what the situation will be there. We’re going there to play hockey, so that’s really all that matters.”
Not knowing what things are like in Toronto apart from conversations with colleagues there, Dallas Stars coach Rick Bowness figures it will be an advantage for the Eastern teams switching cities, even if there is less freedom to move around the bubble in Edmonton.
“Any change of scenery at this point is a good thing. Trust me,” said Bowness, whose team has been in Edmonton for six weeks. “I’m sure that will help them get out of there, get out of that bubble and come to a totally different bubble.”
Coping with bubble fatigue was also a consequence of closing out the Bruins early. The Lightning got through that bump in the road and are now focusing on trying to win the Stanley Cup that has eluded this group for several years.
“Once you’re playing back to backs and you’re in these series, it’s easier because you don’t have enough time to focus on other things because you’re either preparing or playing,” Killorn said. Now that we’ve had four days, it seems like you start thinking about other things. But knowing that we’re going to be going to Edmonton (on Saturday), I’m sure we’ll be focused up when we get there.”