LeBrun: No relaxation for the Lightning as one other heavyweight bout with the Panthers awaits

Before we get to the Battle of Florida, a word on the Toronto Maple Leafs.

This season was always shaping up to be the two Florida teams and the Leafs at the top of the Atlantic, three of the top eight records in the entire NHLat least one of them would be squeezed out in the first round of the playoffs.

It was going to sting hard for one of them. The current playoff format ensures that.

“That can happen anytime. It’s unfortunate that such a good team goes out early,” Panthers GM Bill Zito said Sunday. “You just don’t want it to be you, right?”

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos was asked Saturday night after Game 7 about playing the Panthers next. He sat back and pondered how daunting the whole set-up was this season.

“I mean, our division was crazy this year,” Stamkos said. “You beat a team like Toronto which was a top-five team in the league, then you got the best team in the regular season now in the second round. It’s a shame that these teams are out early but that’s the way it’s set up. We know what it’s going to be. It’s going to be a heck of a series.”

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper broadened the scope, pointing out that all eight teams in the Eastern Conference had 100-plus points this season. Four of them were going to be knocked out.

“Fortunately for us, we weren’t one of them. But it took everything to knock these guys out,” Cooper said Saturday, sounding very much like a guy who had just gone 12 rounds in a heavyweight bout.

Imagine being Zito, who was sitting there Saturday night watching the Tampa-Toronto seventh game, pondering what was around the corner.

Lightning or Leafs. Pick your poison, right?

“There’s a myriad of thoughts, honestly,” Zito said of what was going through his mind watching the Lightning-Leafs Game 7. “So many people asked prior, ‘Who do you want to play?’ I can speak for myself and I think I can speak for a lot of other people, too: You don’t really think about that. You just worry about yourself. But obviously, you’re watching the games. Part of you is scouting. Part of you is being a fan. It’s a little strange, not knowing. Not knowing about schedules, it’s kind of weird, actually. It’s a difficult emotion to describe.”

The honest truth, Zito said, is that they didn’t care who they played next, they just focused on their own team.

The Lightning know they’re in for another heavyweight bout with the Panthers.

This was always going to be the tougher route. The teams finishing 2-3 in the Atlantic would have to play each other then likely get No. 1 Florida on the other side of it.

Getting past the Leafs took every ounce of energy and championship moxie the Bolts had.

Leafs Nation is dealing with another heartbreak. Six straight years in the Auston Matthews era without a playoff series win. The Leafs now have the NHL’s longest drought of not winning a playoff series, dating back to 2004 thanks in part to the Panthers beating the Capitals and ending their drought dating back to 1996.

So there’s more angst again for Leafs fans. And there was clearly deep hurt Saturday night as the Leafs’ top players spoke emotionally about another first-round loss.

But know this, the back-to-back Stanley Cup champs come away from that series thinking very highly of the Leafs.

“Unbelievable team,” Victor Hedman said of the Leafs. “It was a close-fought series. They have some unbelievable players. They were fighting hard. It was a close game tonight, it could have gone either way it feels like. They’re a great group. Their best players are still young in this league, they’re going to get another chance at this.”

The Leafs are as close as they’ve ever been with this group. This wasn’t a collapse like a year ago. They went toe to toe with the champs. They never looked ratted.

But because of those previous playoff losses to Columbus and Montreal, in particular, it’s hard to just examine the Tampa series in a vacuum.

There are no participation ribbons in the NHL. You win or you lose. At some point, if you’re playing the part of a contender, you have to actually win a series.

I’m not calling for massive changes. The Leafs are a very talented team and it feels like the process will finally produce that result.

But at some point ownership is going to grow week of all these first-round misses.

Next season feels like the last chance for this group to get over the hump. Particularly because next summer will be decision time for Matthews, who will enter the 2023 offseason one year away from unrestricted free agency. So 12-13 months from now, the Leafs will need an answer from their superstar center about his future intentions, and Matthews will need to decide if Toronto is a place where he can win a Cup.

But this would not be the summer, in the here and now, where I would make massive changes to the Leafs roster. I would give them one more chance next year.

“I know some of their players,” Cooper said of the Leafs. “I’ve been behind a bench with Morgan RileyI’ve been behind a bench with Mitch Marner, I’ve been behind the bench with Auston Matthews; and if those guys become available, I would be first in line to put them on my team.

“They gave us everything we can handle.”

As will the Panthers, no doubt.

Buckle up, it’s Round 2 of Lightning-Panthers, which was a hell of a series a year ago.

“I think it’s great for hockey down here, for the fans obviously,” Zito said. “The level of excitement surrounding our sport in Florida, certainly in South Florida, growing the game, getting people interested and getting people involved; it’s going to hopefully just continue to push that.”

The series is set to start Tuesday in Sunrise.

“Florida’s a hell of team,” Cooper said. “We’ve watched them all year. We’ve had some amazing battles with them. People, especially in Florida, have been begging for the two teams to be contenders and to go at it. Last year, many people said that might have been the series of the playoffs.”

The Lightning looked tired at times in their series with the Leafs, just so much hockey the last three years. And now there’s the injury question with star forward Brayden Pointwhom Cooper didn’t have an update on Saturday night.

The Panthers, meanwhile, weren’t at their best at times in their six-game series win over Washington. Perhaps the weight of expectations was at play. But either way, there’s another level in Florida’s game the Panthers need to get to, to beat Tampa.

“I think our players would say the same thing, that there’s certainly lots of room to continue to elevate our game and continue to improve,” Zito said. “And I think they look forward to the challenge.”

The second-round series was likely never going to disappoint this season when picking between Florida, Tampa Bay and Toronto.

Bolts-Panthers it is. And it’s shaping up to be tremendous.

(Photo of Nikita Kucherov and Brandon Montour: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

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