BRANDON — Finally, it's here. The Stanley Cup playoffs.
Everything up until now has been like standing in line for Space Mountain.
You know what that's like.
You wait and wait and wait. The line bends all the way down there, then all the way back here, around and around and around. You keep seeing the same faces along the way.
At times you can't help but become bored. You get tired. You try thinking about the ride, what it's going to be like. You get excited. You can't wait.
Then you realize that you will have to wait, you will have to keep standing in line. Sometimes it feels like you're never going to get there.
See, that's what the NHL season can be like. Space Mountain is the Stanley Cup playoffs. And the long line is the long regular season.
Finally, when the regular season ends, you can't wait to jump on the ride.
But is all that waiting going to be worth it?
Just like the first time riding Space Mountain, you have no idea how long the Stanley Cup playoffs are going to last and, quite frankly, whether it's going to be any fun. You don't truly know until it's over.
And that's where the Lightning has arrived. The end of the line. The long wait is over. Now it's time to hop on board, buckle up and go for a ride.
But who knows how it's going to go?
"We're just excited to be in this position and this is what we've been working on since Day 1," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
At this time of year, the goal is three simple words:
"Survive and advance," Cooper said.
But that's the hard part of this ride. Surviving is hard. Advancing is hard. There are no easy teams in the playoffs. No series is easy.
It's what makes it so exciting. But it's what also makes it so nerve-racking.
Anything can happen in the playoffs to derail even the best teams. An injury. Then another injury. A suddenly hot opposing goalie. A fluky bounce. A bad call.
One soft goal could lead to one bad loss. And one loss could decide a series.
More than six months of work could go down the tubes in a matter of minutes.
Hockey games are replaced by rounds of golf in a snap.
The Lightning and the other 15 playoff-bound teams have just a couple of days to shake off the regular season, recalibrate and get ready for the most intense hockey there is.
"Have a plan," Cooper said when asked how to gear up for the playoffs. "Everybody is aware of what we're doing."
But it's not easy to ramp back up again. Cooper compares it to going back to the first game of the regular season.
"Then (comes) 81 other games where you're grinding," Cooper said.
That's the problem. You have to go from grinding to full speed almost overnight. And if you don't, your season could end in four games.
"Complete focus settles right back into the playoffs," Cooper said. "Just being around the guys, (you can feel) such determination, a reset. You can tell the guys are really looking forward to getting going."
The Lightning's reboot for these playoffs is an odd one.
Tampa Bay had a big statement victory against the Bruins last week, but it isn't coming into the postseason red hot.
It didn't exactly stumble down the stretch. It more like meandered down the stretch. It struggled just enough to make you wonder if it has what it takes to win it all.
Then again, the final result of the regular season couldn't have gone much better. The Lightning won the Atlantic Division, is the top seed in the Eastern Conference and will have home-ice advantage for the first three rounds of the playoffs, and maybe even in the final, too. Whether it backed into that sweet spot really doesn't matter.
"We set ourselves up for a good opportunity here," Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "That's how you approach it. Every day is another opportunity to get better and one step closer to where you want to be."
One step to the end of the line. Maybe one step closer to the Stanley Cup. Strap in, sit back and enjoy.
If you can.