New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)

Eastern Conference race still runs through ‘Champa Bay’

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It’s going on 40 years since the NHL last celebrated a three-peat Stanley Cup champion as part of the New York Islanders’ run of four straight titles from 1980-83.

The Lightning have won two straight, and defenseman Victor Hedman doesn’t see why Tampa Bay can’t make it three in a row despite another offseason of salary cap-forced subtractio­ns.

“We’re not satisfied,” Hedman said. “We don’t want to see anybody else raising that Cup, that’s for sure.”

With several Eastern Conference teams such as the Islanders, Carolina and Florida — all three lost to Tampa Bay in the playoffs last season — poised to close the gap, the reality is this season’s Cup still runs through “Champa Bay.”

Though the Lightning were forced to unload their entire third line, while plugging holes with modestly priced veterans, captain Steven Stamkos believes the team’s window of opportunit­y hasn’t shut yet, especially if the salary cap begins nudging upward after staying flat the past two years.

“You just hope that the way things are trending, the salary cap is going creep up,” Stamkos said. “But at this point, right now, we’re not thinking about that. You’re thinking about what do we have to do to win it again.”

FanDuel Sportsbook favors the Lightning to win the East, but the Islanders might top the list of teams wanting to have a word with the oddsmakers after having each of their last two seasons end by losing to Tampa Bay in the semifinals, including a 1-0 loss in Game 7 in June.

“I think internally we’ve seen a lot of growth and (there are) still spots we think we can be better,” said Islanders captain Anders Lee, who returns after being sidelined most of last season with a knee injury. “I still think there’s something there that we know we have, and we just got to put it on the table.”

The Panthers upgraded their lineup by adding forward Sam Reinhart in a trade with Buffalo, and re-signed unrestrict­ed free agent defenseman Brandon Montour, whom they acquired in a trade with Buffalo in April.

Then there’s the Hurricanes, whose Sebastian Aho-led core of young stars remain in place despite the team re-shuffling other parts of its roster this summer. If only they can get their goaltendin­g set with the offseason additions of Antti Raanta and Frederik Andersen, best known for playing a role in Toronto’s playoff collapses during his five seasons with the Maple Leafs.

Never count out Pittsburgh, though Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will miss the start of the season recovering from injuries. And don’t forget Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, so long as their aging roster remains healthy after injuries led to their third consecutiv­e first-round exit in May.

“I’m using it as an excuse but I don’t want to use it as an excuse: We need to be healthy going into the playoffs and that’s part of it,” Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said. “I think we can compete with all the best teams in the league.”

BEHIND THE BENCHES

Gerard Gallant lands his fourth head-coaching job in taking over the New York Rangers, and the East will feature three relative first-timers behind the bench.

Montreal’s Dominique Ducharme and Buffalo’s Don Granato were promoted to full-time jobs after spending last season as their teams’ interim coaches. In Columbus, Brad Larsen takes over the Blue Jackets after spending the past seven seasons as an assistant under John Tortorella and Todd Richards.

 ?? Keith Srakocic / Associated Press ?? Anders Lee and New York Islanders might have the best shot at dethroning two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay this season.
Keith Srakocic / Associated Press Anders Lee and New York Islanders might have the best shot at dethroning two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay this season.

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