Itching for the playoffs already? Treasure the two points from Lightning opener

Tampa Bay Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) beats Florida Panthers goaltender James Reimer (34) to score a short-handed goal to tie the score at 1 during third period. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Tampa Bay Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) beats Florida Panthers goaltender James Reimer (34) to score a short-handed goal to tie the score at 1 during third period. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Published October 6 2018
Updated October 7 2018

TAMPA — Opening night.

It had pomp. It had circumstance. It had Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The Lightning is certainly glad about that last thing. Had it not been for the big Russian goalie, it would not have beaten the Panthers 2-1 in a shootout.

That's how Saturday night ended.

It started with the chant of "Let's go Lightning.'' It felt like a playoff game.

Speaking of which:

When do the playoffs start?

Sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself. There are 81 regular-season games left to be played.

But back to the playoffs. That's what we're all waiting for, right? Even the Lightning. You just have to believe that the team that has been in the Eastern Conference final three of the past four seasons just wants to fast-forward to that place again.

The regular season is just a formality, wouldn't you agree?

"No!'' said Lightning forward J.T. Miller, who, along with Nikita Kucherov, scored the shootout goals that gave Tampa Bay the victory. "We're worried about now. If you want to end up in a good spot, these games matter.''

A lot of smart hockey people are picking the Lightning to win the Stanley Cup this season. But here's the deal: Tampa Bay can't win the Cup in the next month or two.

But it sure can lose it, especially if it plays too many games like Saturday's.

Yeah, the Lightning won. But no, it didn't play all that well.

"Not all of them are pretty,'' coach Jon Cooper said. "But we'll take it."

That's why no one is peeking around the corner to the spring. Even Cooper, who has seen just about everything in hockey, had a spooked look on his face when asked about looking ahead to the playoffs.

"If you asked me that question … after we came off our Cup (final) run (in 2015), I'm sure that was probably a little bit of the feeling," Cooper said. "But that's not a feeling for us anymore. We understand. Since then, we missed the playoffs (2017) and we've gone to Game 7 of the conference final (twice), and we know how important it is to win the regular season, especially early."

Cooper pointed to the two teams that played each other Saturday night at Amalie Arena.

In 2016-17 — two seasons after the Lightning reached the Cup final and one season after it went to Game 7 of the conference final — Tampa Bay started the season 19-19-4. By early February it was 22-24-6 and out of a playoff spot. Even a late rally (20-6-4 in the final 30 games) couldn't salvage a postseason berth. It missed by a single point.

Take the Panthers last season. They started 4-8-2, and even that short stretch put them in a hole they couldn't climb of. The Panthers went on an 18-5-2 run to close the season but still missed the playoffs — also by a single point.

"You can go on unbelievable runs the last 30 games of the year and still not make the playoffs,'' Cooper said. "And the two teams playing (Saturday) night are living proof of that. That means you probably had a lousy start, and it's hard to chase, and so you want to make sure you're not doing that.''

Last season the Lightning made sure that didn't happen. It got off to the best start in franchise history at 15-2-2 and cruised into the playoffs.

"These early points are huge,'' forward Brayden Point said. "We kind of struggled down the stretch last year, but we had such a good start that we put ourselves in a good spot.''

Replicating what it did last season seems impossible for the Lightning. As Cooper pointed out, the franchise has been around a quarter of a century and never had a better start.

"But what we have to replicate is making the playoffs and getting enough points for that,'' Cooper said. "As recent history is telling us, you need in the high 90s, which is a lot of wins. So you can't take games for granted. … Basically means you got to win a lot of games every month."

History says that if you're in a playoff spot as early as Thanksgiving, your chance of making the playoffs is nearly 80 percent. That's only 21 games from right now for the Lightning. That's why even two points in a ragged game helped Saturday night.

"You want to play; you want to be in the present," Miller said. "Now, game No. 65 or 70, it's a little harder. But that's the grind of the season, and then the playoffs come and there's nothing like it. But that's so far away. We're worried about now. If you want to end up in a good spot, these games matter."

That's true. But hockey fans around here can still dream about the playoffs, right?

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