TAMPA, Fla. — With a home-and-home series on deck against the two-time reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Lightning, Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant reflected on the state of Tampa Bay when he was the bench boss of the team on the other side of the state, the Panthers.
In Gallant’s first season in Florida, 2014-15, the Lightning lost to the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final. The next year, Tampa Bay fell short in a seven-game conference final series against the Penguins. The Lightning then didn’t even qualify for the postseason during the 2016-17 season.
“They were still a good team then, they were learning how to win, I guess,” Gallant said after the Rangers practiced at Amalie Arena on Thursday. “They were one of the top teams, they had a couple disappointments in the playoffs that made them a better and stronger team. And now, they’re at the top.
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“So they had two or three tough years there, where they were a good team and they lost. They got there, they learned from the playoffs and then they came back the next two years, and they win the Stanley Cup. They knew they had the grit and they added guys like [Barclay] Goodrow and [Blake] Coleman and those types of players, and that made the difference for them.”
Goodrow plays for the Rangers now. And Coleman signed with the Flames as a free agent in the offseason. The Lightning may have lost a handful of key players this past summer, but the core is still intact and has continued to dominate the NHL.
Entering the New Years Eve showdown Friday night, Tampa Bay leads the NHL with 46 points and is tied with the Hurricanes with a league-leading 21 wins. The Lightning currently sit in first place in the Atlantic Division, four points ahead of both the Maple Leafs and Panthers.
As of Thursday, the Lightning still had star goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy in COVID-19 protocol, in addition to backup netminder Brian Elliott, defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. Facing the Lightning with Vasilevskiy out would be a huge opportunity for the Rangers.
“That team has had a lot of controversy this year with the injuries they’ve had with their star players and all that, but they just keep finding ways,” Gallant said. “They’re in first place in the NHL again and [Lightning head coach] Jon Cooper does a good job with his staff, getting his team ready to play. They play hard, they work hard and that’s why they’ve won Stanley Cups. It’s not just from their skill, but it’s the will and the way they play every night.”
Having won nine of their last 10 games, the Lightning will likely pose as one of the biggest challenges of the season for the Rangers. Gallant said he’s looking for the Rangers to compete as they did in the second period of their eventual 4-3 loss to the Panthers on Wednesday, highlighting how the team got behind the defense and managed the puck well.
While Gallant didn’t confirm who would start in net for the Rangers, it’s safe to assume Igor Shesterkin will get the nod. Shesterkin has yet to face the Lightning in his three NHL seasons.
“If we’re going to play a loose game against Tampa and exchange chances, two-on-one’s and three-on-two’s and not to the right thing with the puck, we’ll have a tough night,” Gallant said.
Filip Chytil had a maintenance day Thursday and didn’t skate with the Rangers, but he is expected to be good to go against the Lightning.
“He tweaked something [Wednesday night against the Panthers], he should be fine,” Gallant said.