When it comes to the Tampa Bay Lightning these days, there's only one question that really matters:
Will the Lightning win the Stanley Cup?
That's it. That's the big question. That's the only thing on everyone's mind.
Will it or won't it?
Does this team, which has been in position to lift Lord Stanley's Cup for a few years now, have what it takes to finally win hockey's holy grail? Is this the year?
It has only 21 regular-season games left. It has just a couple of days before the trade deadline, meaning time is running out to tinker with the roster.
Then all that's left is getting down to the business of the most grueling tournament in sports — a two-month marathon filled with blood, sweat and tears.
Once the Lightning got off to a red-hot start this season, making the playoffs seemed a foregone conclusion. Now it's a waiting game. It has been since Christmas. Most people in Tampa Bay, including anyone who wears a lightning bolt on his or her jersey, would love to hop into a time machine, fast-forward to April 8 and get this postseason thing cranked up already.
But the question remains:
Will the Lightning win the Stanley Cup?
The first instinct is to say no because it's hard to say any one team will win the Cup. If your choice is one particular team or the field, it's always smarter to take the field.
Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson chatted up several members of the Lightning's staff on his way out of the Canadian Tire Center Thursday in Ottawa.Posted by Tampa Bay Times - Sports on Friday, February 23, 2018
There's another reason to be a little skeptical about the Lightning these days.
Doesn't it feel like something is a bit off with this team? Doesn't it feel like something is not quite right?
Tampa Bay started the season with a 29-8-2 record. That's ridiculously good. There was no way to keep up that kind of pace.
Since then, the Lightning has gone 12-9-1. That's not bad. That's not exactly reason to panic.
But it's the way the team has played over that stretch that has Tampa Bay feeling a little uneasy.
The Lightning looks vulnerable. It looks beatable.
Look, maybe the Lightning is bored. Maybe it is just biding its time until April. Maybe it is just waiting until then to flip the switch.
If you're a Lightning fan, you'd better hope so. Otherwise, maybe something a little more serious is going on here.
Steve Yzerman isn't going to give up the farm, noting there's no guarantee a Stanley Cup will be the reward.Posted by Tampa Bay Times - Sports on Thursday, February 22, 2018
If you have watched this team of late, you can see it gives up way too many shots and scoring chances. The Lightning gives up more shots than it takes, which is stunning considering how loaded it is offensively.
And because it gives up so many chances, it is giving up way too many goals, though goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has been absolutely phenomenal. It's hard to imagine where this team would be without him. Even when the Lightning wins, there are moments when it feels like the team makes it harder than it needs to be, that the games end up closer than they should be.
The easy thing to do is to blame the defensemen. They get the most fingers pointed at them, especially younger blue-liners Mikhail Sergachev, Jake Dotchin, Slater Koekkoek and Andrej Sustr.
But there's more to the Lightning's struggling defense than just struggling defensemen. The team's overall defense, which includes the forwards, needs to improve if Tampa Bay wants to be playing well into May. Maybe it's not a coincidence that some of the Lightning's defensive woes became more noticeable when two-way forward Ondrej Palat went down with an injury.
Meantime, some scary teams are out there in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins have been as good as any team in hockey over the past two months. They are 21-3-3 in their past 27, and the Lightning has never done well in Boston. The Maple Leafs are young and hungry. Both those teams are in Tampa Bay's division, and the Lightning likely will have to go through one or both just to get to the Eastern Conference final.
The East also has the Capitals and the white-hot Flyers, and does anyone want to play the two-time defending champion Penguins?
But here's the positive news.
After all this, the Lightning still entered Friday with the best record in the NHL. It still has a roster full of elite offensive skill, led by Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point. And it has, like, 10 other guys who can win a game by themselves.
As far as getting a boost for the final stretch, don't be surprised if general manager Steve Yzerman makes a move to patch up the defense. It probably won't be a big blockbuster deal, like a trade for Ottawa's Erik Karlsson, but it could be one for a reliable veteran who can provide consistent play in the playoffs.
But what if Yzerman stands pat?
Again, it's smarter to take the field than one team when picking the Cup winner. But if you had to pick one team, which team would it be?
I don't feel quite as strongly as I dide two months ago, but my money is still on the Lightning.