TAMPA – Forget the scoreboard for a minute. At this point, it’s not important.
In this final month of this extraordinary regular season, try looking at the Lightning through the eyes of coach Jon Cooper. It’s not the score that you worry most about, but the process.
You have that luxury. Fifty wins by the first week of March isn’t just a number, it’s a safety net. So let them check the standings daily in Boston. Let them watch the scoreboard nightly in Toronto.
Around here, the landscape is larger. Lightning players clearly have enough talent to win the Stanley Cup, so now you want to make sure they have the proper perspective. Every blessed night.
This is how Cooper can be chasing down history’s greatest regular season teams, and still not be satisfied. Proud? Sure. Happy? More often than not. But never satisfied.
So the Lightning can batter the pitiful Ottawa Senators 5-1 the other night, and defenseman Ryan McDonagh can stand in the locker room with a straight face and talk about the excessive number of giveaways the team had been compiling. (He was right, by the way. Tampa Bay had been averaging 8.3 giveaways per game, but had 45 in the previous three games.)
“It’s when you recognize that what’s important is not the 5-1 win, but how you got to that 5-1 win,’’ Cooper said. “Do we feel good about ourselves in how we played to get that 5-1 win, or did we just make some really skilled plays and get away with it?
“It starts with a group of leaders who are willing to pay attention to the details of what is not necessarily going to win in January, February and March, but what’s going to win in April, May and June.’’
For the Lightning, this is not a mindless slogan. Since Cooper took over as head coach in 2013-14, the Lightning has won more regular season games than any team in the NHL. More than the Capitals – the 2018 Stanley Cup champions. More than the Penguins – the 2016 and “17 Stanley Cup champions. More than the Blackhawks (2015 champions) and more than the Kings (2014 champions).
Some of these Tampa Bay players were two wins away from being Stanley Cup champions in 2015. They were one win away from returning to the Stanley Cup finals in 2016 and again in 2018.
That’s an impressive run of success, and a frustrating amount of disappointment. And it explains how a team can continue winning at a record pace this season and still not take its foot off the gas.
It also creates a tight rope that Cooper must walk across daily. When do critical reviews start to sound like nagging? When does asking for more become asking for too much?
“There’s such a balance that goes on and that’s where, having been around this group for a while, my feel has gotten better,’’ Cooper said. “There’s a level of communication to understand when they need time off, when they don’t, and when they need to be pushed.
“It is a different kind of push when you’ve won 50 in the first week of March and that’s where you have to rely on the room a little bit to be able to handle those situations.’’
And this is where the Lightning is at today. Too far ahead to worry, but too many painful memories to ignore. So the players focus on the now. On the idea that every game is a proving ground.
You want to know how a team can go 67 games and lose back-to-back in regulation only once? By understanding the difference between a bad game and bad habits.
The Lightning has been far ahead of the rest of the Eastern Conference for so long, any objects in the rear view mirror really are as far away as they appear.
So is the process working? Is the Lightning properly preparing for the playoffs, regardless of regular season results? Have all the lessons been learned?
“I don’t know,’’ Cooper says as he walks away. “You tell me.’’