Ryan Callahan
Callahan, Lightning keeping focus on ice
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Michael Rushton - NHL Contributor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The way Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper sees it, the media has a pretty easy job leading up to the start of Saturday's Eastern Conference finals.

That is when the Lightning will begin their series with the New York Rangers for a chance to battle for the Stanley Cup, and it is a matchup not lacking for additional story lines.

The biggest, of course, stems from a trade that took place on March 5, 2014, when Tampa Bay dealt captain Martin St. Louis to New York. In return, the Lightning got the Rangers' captain, Ryan Callahan, along with a host of draft picks going each way.

Neither player left without a bit of negative press; St. Louis having felt disrespected by Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman over an Olympic selection snub and Callahan unable to reach agreement on a contract extension with a Rangers club that selected him in the fourth round of the 2004 draft.

Over a year later, both players have helped their respective club to the verge of a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. St. Louis, in fact, is looking to get the Rangers back into the championship round for a second year in a row.

Think people will tune in to see how this one ends?

"I'm a big believer that anything that is going to bring people's attention to the game is a good thing," Cooper said. "... How often do two captains get traded for each other? And then are going to end up going against each other in the Eastern Conference final? You can't make that stuff up. It's a pretty appealing story."

There is a question, though, of when Callahan will be able to suit up for this series. He missed Tampa Bay's series-clinching Game 6 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday after having undergone an emergency appendectomy the previous day.

Callahan recapped on Thursday that he had a stomachache early that morning that worsened. He eventually was seen by the team trainer and sent for further evaluation, which led to the procedure.

"It was tough news, obviously. It was sudden. You're not really expecting it. You expect to go in, get checked out and be back home in an hour," Callahan said. "Unfortunately, those things happen. The team played amazing. It was a great Game 6. It was tough to watch, but I'm excited to try and get back to playing again."

Callahan declared his status on Thursday as "day-to-day" after taking part in a light skate ahead of the team traveling to New York. But he is a hockey player and it wouldn't be a big shock to see him on the ice for Game 1 at his former home arena, Madison Square Garden.

After all, this is a guy who said his first thought upon learning he needed to have emergency surgery was how long would he be out?

As for his reunion with the Rangers, Callahan, who signed a six-year deal with Tampa Bay last June, is more focused on seeing his team advance.

"A lot of emotions, I guess. The biggest thing is we are in the conference finals, no matter who the opponent is," he said. "We've got a chance to move on. There's going to be a lot of emotions to go back there for a playoff game and I'm excited. It's an exciting time of year."

Callahan won't be the only Bolts player looking to defeat his former club. Former Rangers Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman were a part of New York's Cup Finals team last year before both signed with the Lightning this past offseason.

"I don't think you need any extra motivation," Boyle said. "It's going to be fun to play back up there. I've played a lot of playoff games in that building, but it will be a new experience playing on the other side. As the playoffs go, that building gets louder, much like I guess any other building. But it will be exciting."

And just how much of Tampa Bay's energy will go into defeating St. Louis?

Cooper said on Thursday that he thinks the matchup with the Lightning's former star forward means more externally than it does to his players. He figures enough time has passed and that St. Louis didn't leave a bad taste in the locker room despite demanding a trade.

"Marty was our captain. He was a big part of our team. Regardless of why Marty left, he never left with ill will in the room. He made a personal life decision and you can't fault a guy for that," the coach said.

Cooper also made a favorable comparison to one of his young guys in center Tyler Johnson, who broke out with 29 goals and 72 points in 77 games this season. Like St. Louis, the 24-year-old Johnson went undrafted and had to work his way into the NHL and Cooper sees a lot of the 39-year-old St. Louis in Johnson.

"The one thing that is common between them is they're both unbelievable competitors and they both have the ability to put teams on their back," Cooper said. "I think when you look at that respect they are exactly alike. I think you're just watching a little bit of a changing of the guard."

Another guard the Lightning would like to change is that of Eastern Conference champions. The Rangers may be the current Presidents' Trophy winners and were the favorites for much of the season to reach the finals, but the Bolts beat them in all three regular-season meetings while getting 14 goals past New York's superstar goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist.

Tampa Bay also had regular season success against recently dispatched Montreal, but Cooper noted that those victories were only good toward getting the team to the postseason. He called the playoffs "a whole different beast," but didn't completely dismiss the value of the earlier wins.

"I think the one thing with us is it gives us a little confidence, like we have beat them in the past," he said. "They have an all-world goalie who we've proven we can score on."

If Tampa Bay can continue that trend in the playoffs, that will be the story that matters most.

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