TAMPA, Fla. | Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo bristled recently at the suggestion that it was beneficial to his team to face the Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres with the opportunity to make an impact on the playoff race.
“I don’t take a whole great deal of pride in the fact that we can knock some people out of the playoffs or hurt their chances,” Yeo said. “I’d much rather be one of those teams that’s battling for a spot or in a spot right now.”
The Tampa Bay Lightning feel the same way, but this is different. Monday night, they have the chance to at least deal the Caps a significant blow in their hopes of winning a fifth straight Southeast Division title.
“I think anytime you play a divisional rivalry, which it has become the last couple years, and you have a chance to play a meaningful game at this time of the year to maybe knock them out of the playoffs, that’s something that’s in the back of everyone’s mind,” 56-goal scorer Steven Stamkos said.
The Lightning are loose and have nothing to play for in the standings. But Stamkos and his teammates said that shouldn’t change anything: They want to win.
It has been a difficult season for Tampa Bay. Stamkos lamented getting a “taste” of a deep playoff run to the Eastern Conference finals and following it up with a slow start. They made a push in March but ultimately fell apart and out of the hunt.
Now it’s a matter of finding motivation to play at a high level.
“It is tough. I remember my first year in the league, you’re just excited to be in the NHL. You obviously want to play in the playoffs, but you’re just happy to be in the NHL and to get an opportunity to play,” forward Teddy Purcell said. “Now that you’re in the NHL, you want to get there every year. It’s hard, at times, when you know your season’s over next week, to get to that emotion level. It’s a lot easier when there’s playoffs on the line. But you’re a professional and this is our job.”
After a playoff series last year, a sweep by the Lightning, and some interesting encounters this year, including Steve Downie vs. Karl Alzner and the Caps debut of Joel Rechlicz, there’s plenty of hatred to go around Monday.
“They’re fighting for a playoff spot and we’ve had some great rivalries the past couple years. They’ve been playing good lately, too,” Purcell said. “That bad blood boils over, so it’s going to be a good battle tonight and hopefully we take it.”
Unprompted, Troy Brouwer brought up the Lightning as potential spoilers, knowing the history that predates even his time in a Washington uniform.
“We’ve got a team that has some animosity toward us here,” Brouwer said. “They’re not going to just play an easy game because they’re out of the playoffs. Teams like to play the spoiler role and it’s going to be a tough game for us.”