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Lightning awaits conference finals opponent

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The Tampa Bay Lightning has secured their place in the Eastern Conference Finals of the National Hockey League Playoffs. Sunday’s 4-0 blanking of the New York Islanders sent Coach Jon Cooper and his staff into preparation mode for the next round.

Coaches and players are frequently asked “who would you rather play in the next round?” The choices are the Washington Capitals or the Pittsburgh Penguins.

This question is normally answered with the politically correct “it doesn’t matter; either team is a tough challenge.” Choosing one could create bulletin board motivation if the selected team advances.

For those within the Lightning family, the politically correct answer is also the factually correct answer. It matters little who emerges from the other Eastern Conference semifinal.

The Lightning finished behind both teams in the standings. That means they would open on the road no matter who they play.

Washington is the 2016 President’s Cup winner signifying the team with the best overall record this season. The Capitals won 56 games, lost 18 in regulation and 8 in overtime for 120 points.

Pittsburgh started slowly but came on strong at the end of the year. The Penguins won 14 of their last 16 games to finish with a record of 48-26-8 and accumulating 104 points.

Would Tampa Bay rather play the season-long consistent team in Washington or the red-hot Penguins?

Washington was 29-8-4 in the Verizon Center during the regular season while Pittsburgh was 26-11-4 at the Consol Energy Center. The Capitals have dropped two games at home during the playoffs and the Penguins have lost once.

Both teams have a bona fide superstar on their roster, complemented by depth on the lines and strong defenses. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin led the league in goals with 50. Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby was third in the league in scoring with 36 goals and 49 assists.

One statistic might give the Lightning and their coaching staff some pause. During the regular season, Tampa Bay was 0-3 against the Capitals and 3-0 against the Penguins.

Two of the three games against the Capitals were played in Washington and all came before the New Year when Washington was playing their best. Two of the three games against Pittsburgh were played at Amalie Arena and came before the Penguins caught fire in March.

If they had a choice, both teams may have preferred playing the Islanders instead of Tampa Bay, though they would never say so. New York had scant playoff experience while the Lightning was two wins away from last year’s Stanley Cup. Tampa Bay’s expertise showed during the semifinals.

The Lightning may know where they are heading by Tuesday night when Washington travels to Pittsburgh trailing three games to two. No one in the Tampa Bay locker room would quarrel if it takes a Game 7 to decide their opponent.

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Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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