Florida Panthers

NHL season preview: Tampa Bay Lightning will return to Stanley Cup promised land

Tampa Bay Lightning right wing J.T. Brown, second from right, celebrates with Jason Garrison, left, Vladislav Namestnikov, second from left, and Luke Witkowski, right, after scoring against the Dallas Stars during the third period of an NHL preseason game Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, in Tampa, Fla.
Tampa Bay Lightning right wing J.T. Brown, second from right, celebrates with Jason Garrison, left, Vladislav Namestnikov, second from left, and Luke Witkowski, right, after scoring against the Dallas Stars during the third period of an NHL preseason game Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, in Tampa, Fla. AP

The Chicago Blackhawks have had a target on their backs for some time, but it seems to fit them.

After all, they have spent the summer with the Stanley Cup three times in the past six years.

Yet with a lot of turnover — key players from last season’s title title team such as Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya are gone — Chicago is going to find a repeat tough to accomplish.

After going through all the battles of the postseason, no one knows that more than the Blackhawks.

“It’s hard, but I think it can be done,” Duncan Keith told reporters in Toronto before training camp opened.

“I know it’s hard to win a Stanley Cup, but if we don’t look at it like we’re trying to repeat, we’re just trying like every other team to go out there and win.”

According to the Las Vegas insiders, the Blackhawks are favored to win it all and become the first repeat Cup champs since the 1998 Red Wings.

This is not to say the Blackhawks can’t win another Cup, but playing in a cut-throat Western Conference — which has produced the five of the past six champs — it sure won’t be handed to them.

In the Eastern Conference, the Tampa Bay Lightning will no longer fly under the radar after taking on Chicago in last year’s Finals.

The Lightning has everything going for it, from a talent-laden roster to good coaching to great goaltending and plenty of scoring options.

Although the Lightning knows no losing Cup finalist has returned to the Finals the following season since Pittsburgh in 2009, it’s ready to buck the trend and get back to the top of hockey’s mountain.

“You watch these teams making long playoff runs, that play a lot of hockey year-in and year-out, that takes a toll on teams,” Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, captain of the Wings when they repeated in 1997-98, told the Tampa Tribune.

“I think our team is motivated, all of our players are motivated. Staying healthy is going to be a big part of it.”

The Cup came to the Sunshine State in 2004 when the Lightning became Florida’s only team to win sports’ hardest trophy to capture.

The thought here is it returns to Tampa again this summer as the Lightning beat a tough Minnesota team that ends Chicago’s run in the first round and fights its way out of the west.

Or not.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

▪ Playoff contenders: Atlantic Division — 1. Tampa Bay; 2 Montreal; 3. Detroit; 4. Florida. Metropolitan Division — 1. Washington; 2. New York Rangers; 3. Columbus; 4. Pittsburgh.

▪ Lottery teams: Atlantic Division — 5. Ottawa; 6. Boston; 7. Buffalo; 8. Toronto. Metropolitan Division — 5. New York Islanders; 6. Philadelphia; 7. Carolina; 8. New Jersey.

▪ Conference finals: Tampa Bay defeats New York Rangers.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

▪ Playoff contenders: Central Division — 1. St. Louis; 2. Minnesota; 3. Chicago; 4. Nashville. Pacific Division — 1. Anaheim; 2. Los Angeles; 3. Calgary; 4. San Jose.

▪ Lottery teams: Central Division — 5. Winnipeg; 6. Dallas; 7. Colorado. Pacific Division — 5. Edmonton; 6. Vancouver; 7. Arizona.

▪ Conference finals: Minnesota defeats Anaheim.

STANLEY CUP FINALS

Tampa Bay defeats Minnesota.

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