Jon Cooper and Todd Reirden were coaching at the All-Star Game in January when the topic of winning the Presidents’ Trophy arose.
With Cooper’s Lightning cruising toward winning it as the NHL’s best team, he asked the Washington head coach how to handle it. Reirden was less than helpful.
“I said: ‘Good luck! I don’t know what you’re talking about,’” Reirden recalled with a grin.
Finishing at the top of the league comes with expectations, but only two of 13 Presidents’ Trophy winners in the salary-cap era have won the Stanley Cup and none since 2013. If this is the burden to bear for Tampa Bay, the Lightning seem OK with it.
“Nobody in there is sitting there thinking now we’ve got a path to the Stanley Cup Finals,” Cooper said. “As a matter of fact, actually the odds are probably grossly against us just in the sense there’s going to be 15 other teams. Anytime you go in somewhere and say, ‘OK, we’re going to pick this team’ and somebody’s got the field, usually the field is the teams to take.”
Taking the field this time means betting against a team that was 21 points clear of anyone else in the league, has the top scorer and likely MVP in Nikita Kucherov, a Vezina Trophy candidate in goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and looks built for this moment. Of course, so did the Nashville Predators last year.
Photo: Jason Behnken / Associated Press
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When the Predators clinched the Presidents’ Trophy against the Capitals, who won it the previous two years, winger Filip Forsberg said: “We’ve seen especially here that the trophy doesn’t mean that much going forward.”
It didn’t, and Nashville lost in the second round to Winnipeg in seven games.
The Capitals have won the Presidents’ Trophy three times in the Alex Ovechkin era — under head coach Bruce Boudreau in 2010 and Barry Trotz in 2016 and 2017 (with Reirden as his top assistant) — and lost in the first or second round each time.
Boudreau, now with Minnesota, said the pressure stems from constant questions players face because “they can’t away from it” more than a feeling of internal superiority. But nine years after getting beaten by red-hot goaltender Jaroslav Halak and Montreal in the first round, Boudreau vividly remembers a Game 6 feeling of, “Oh my God, if we lose this game!”
They did. Tampa Bay defenseman Braydon Coburn remembers it clearly because it helped pave the way for his run to the Cup Finals with Philadelphia. He and his Lightning teammates are keenly aware of other teams’ missteps in the same spot in which they find themselves now.
“You look to the past,” Coburn said. “You try to take them as lessons. I don’t think you try to psych yourself out in any sort of way. But I think you look back to that Washington series against Montreal, I remember it very well. It was Halak. He played out of his mind. That’s the thing about playoffs is you never know what’s going to happen.”
What should happen based on 1,271 regular-season games is Steven Stamkos raising the Stanley Cup in June. What actually happens is anyone’s guess.
Stephen Whyno is an Associated Press writer.
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/sports/article/Good-luck-Lightning-carry-burden-of-13754792.php.