TAMPA — This is getting stupid.
I’m looking at the NHL standings, I’m looking at the Lightning, hockey team from another planet, light years ahead of everyone.
Didn’t Jon Cooper’s guys, 10-0-2 in February after Thursday’s 2-1 shootout win against the Sabres, read the memo about hitting a slump to keep things honest?
This is getting stupid.
The Lightning, an obliterating 47-11-4 with 20 games remaining, is constructing one of the more remarkable seasons in hockey history, recent or otherwise, and the best season a Tampa Bay sports team has ever rolled out — provided it closes the deal.
The 2002 Super Bowl champion Bucs? The 2003-04 Stanley Cup champion Lightning? Nothing like this. This team is blowing doors off. It is going ‘76-77 Canadiens on everyone.
There seems no end to it. The Lightning is going through all the red lights that say this can’t happen in today’s NHL, not with the salary cap and parity. Milestones are teetering. The record for Lightning wins in a season, 54, set just last season, seems doomed to fall; 54 was small potatoes.
Steven Stamkos is three goals from passing Vinny Lecavalier as the team’s all-time leading goal scorer. Nikita Kucherov, an MVP candidate, scored the Lightning’s goal Thursday to get his second consecutive 100-point season, which makes him the first Lightning player to have a pair of 100-point seasons. And Kucherov is going to blow that away … 120 points, 125 points, something the NHL hasn’t seen in more than a decade.
The Boston Bruins, the Lightning’s division rival, have won seven games in a row. They’re red hot. And they haven’t picked up a single point on Tampa Bay, which has won eight straight. The Lightning has lost two games in a row in regulation all season, back in November. The closest team in the league to the Lightning is Calgary, and the Flames are 17 points back.
This is getting stupid.
“I don’t think anyone in here has been on a team that has been this dominant through 60 games of a season,” Stamkos said Thursday morning. “I never have, not in the NHL. We joke about it. Sixteen points up, 18 points up, it just doesn’t happen. Not anymore, anyway.
“But at the same time, it’s ‘Let’s make it an 18-point lead, let’s make it a 20-point lead.’ Let’s just keep winning.”
Here is the nightmare of playing the best team on the planet. You first must stop the whirring blades of its offense, coming at you from every direction, in waves. If you get around them, you come to the blue line, where either reigning Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman or Norris dark horse Ryan McDonagh await. If you get around them, you merely come to Andrei Vasilevskiy, the best goaltender in hockey.
We need to wrap our minds around just how special this has been. Granted, it won’t mean a thing when the playoffs begin, if the wrong team gets hot, if the Lightning hits a scoring slump or there are injuries. That is all it would take. But at the moment, it’s hard to see a team beating the Lightning four times in two playoff weeks.
Used to be we’d think of 60 wins, or the NHL record of 62 wins, set by the Red Wings in the 1995-96 season, were untouchable.
But what feels untouchable right now?
It’s not just that the Lightning has the most goals in the league, or the best home and road records, or the best power play, or the second-best penalty kill or that Brayden Point, Tampa Bay’s best shutdown center, has 35 goals, or that the Lightning has gone Gretzky’s Oilers on us with at least five goals in six of its past eight games.
Take the last road trip, back-to-back games at Columbus and Philadelphia.
Columbus jumped on the Lightning in the first period Monday but good, took the game to the Lightning — and trailed 2-0 after one period off two Kucherov goals. Lightning wins, 5-1.
Then Philadelphia. Hedman was out with an injury. Point sat out after missing a meeting. Kucherov, who had five points at Columbus, went scoreless, with just one shot. Vasilevskiy’s backup, Louis Domingue, was in net. The Lightning led 3-0 after 10 minutes. Final: 5-2.
Art intersects with sports on the protective headgear of hockey goalies, giving them a chance to make fashion statements while deflecting flying pucks. #TBLightning #GoBolts @tblightning @dianacnearhos @TB_Times https://t.co/3tlLo8ItC8— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) February 21, 2019
“That would have been the perfect excuse to play a (lousy) game,” Stamkos said. “But we just seem to find a new purpose every night, something we can improve on.”
Cooper points to real meat on the bones in his team’s final games, including three with Boston, two at Toronto, one with Winnipeg, three with defending Stanley Cup champion Washington.
Maybe it’s the memory of blowing the Eastern Conference final from ahead last year that drives this Lightning team. Maybe that’s why it has kept the foot on the gas all season.
Come the playoffs, it’s win or else. But “or else” doesn’t seem to be an option at the moment. The Lightning wins keep coming. They won’t stop. This is getting stupid.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly