Should the Lightning chase a title and history? We asked someone who did.

Lou Piniella’s 2001 Seattle Mariners were once in the same position as the 2019 Tampa Bay Lightning. Here’s what Piniella has to say to Jon Cooper and Co.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper's team is in position to chase the 1996 Detroit Red Wings' NHL record of 62 victories this season. But should Tampa Bay chase it? DIRK SHADD  |  Times
Lightning coach Jon Cooper's team is in position to chase the 1996 Detroit Red Wings' NHL record of 62 victories this season. But should Tampa Bay chase it? DIRK SHADD | Times
Published March 14

ST. PETERSBURG — The runaway Lightning is in Detroit tonight, where another win will be its 54th, tying the franchise season record set last season.

But we all know what’s out there: 63.

That would be 63 wins, a record for an NHL season.

The Lightning needs 10 wins in its last 12 games to pass the Detroit Red Wings, who won 62 in 1995-96. Beyond that, it would need 23 points out of 24 to pass the Montreal Canadiens, who had 132 points in 1976-77.

We’re talking about the holiest of holies, kids.

It would seem a tough trick at this point, given the team’s remaining schedule, which included a Saturday visit from the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, who bounced the stunned Lightning last season.

But 63 is out there until it isn’t.

“I think if we get to 59, maybe we’ll start talking about it,”: Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “But we’re not talking about it right now.”

Some Lightning players don’t even know what the record is, a good thing, given the quirky nature of being best ever.

“There’s a double-edged sword for sure,” Lou Piniella said.

Piniella has been on it. In 2001, he managed the Seattle Mariners to 116 wins, tying for the most in baseball history. But the Mariners didn’t win the World Series. They didn’t even make the World Series, falling in five games in the American League Championship Series to Piniella’s old team, the three-time defending world champion New York Yankees.

There’s a real edge to that double edge. It’s true in every sport.

But start with hockey. Since the 1985-86 season, the Presidents’ Trophy has been awarded to the NHL team with the most regular-season points. It’s been a curse is what it has been.

Only eight of those trophy winners have won the Stanley Cup. In the last 10 seasons, only the Chicago Blackhawks claimed both prizes, and that was in the severely shortened 2012-13 lockout season.

The 1995-96 record-setting Presidents’ Trophy Red Wings, with those 62 wins, were ousted in the Western Conference Finals by the Colorado Avalanche.

The Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy in consecutive seasons, 2015-16 and 2016-17 but never made it past the second round of the playoffs. Only when they jumped off the high horse last season did they win the Cup.

Basketball? The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors went 73-9 to eclipse Michael Jordan and the 1995-96 72-10 Chicago Bulls for best record ever. The Warriors later blew a 3-1 lead and lost in the NBA Finals to Cleveland.

Football? The Miami Dolphins went a perfect 17-0 in 1972. But the 2007 New England Patriots were 18-0 heading into the Super Bowl. They lost to the New York Giants.

Back to baseball. The team Seattle tied for best record ever was the 1906 116-36 Chicago Cubs – who lost the World Series to the crosstown Chicago White Sox.

“So, I guess you’re saying that you should just creep into the playoffs, grind your way in and then surprise with how your players come together,” Cooper said with a grin. “I’ll take this. I’d rather be the chased than the chaser.”

There is no indication on what the Lightning will do if they come up on 59, 60 wins. Do they press on? Cooper hasn’t discussed it with his players. Either that or they’re pretending they haven’t.

If it was me? With five more wins, the Lightning clinch the Presidents’ Trophy and with that home ice throughout the playoffs. I can see giving some players some rest at that point, record or no, even if I have to tie Andrei Vasilevskiy to his hotel bed. The key is heading to the postseason the right way, in sync. Everything else should take a back seat.

But it’s a decision that has to be made.

Piniella and the Mariners made one in 2001. They set out for 117 wins.

“Remember, it was 9/11 that year, we had about a two-week break. So, we had to make a tough decision. Do we go for the record or rest our team entirely?” he said. “We had a big enough lead. We decided to take a shot at it while still being able to rest our pitching as well as we could. We had a Hall of Fame GM in Pat Gillick. We talked all the time about it. And we talked to the players. We had a clubhouse meeting. The players wanted to go for it.

“As it was, we lost to Texas in the final game of the season. We would have won 117 but came out at 116. I don’t regret it at all.

“We got stretched out in that first playoff series,” he said. “We had to go five games to beat Cleveland. We had a really good team, but only had one or two starters who could beat the Yankees. We got stretched to five games in the first series, and Jamie Moyer, my No. 1 guy, had to start Game 5 against Cleveland. So, we had to use our 4, 5 guys against the Yankees Game 1 or 2.

“The Yankees were so good. What a team they had. We just couldn’t get by them. They had much better starting pitching and then they had Mariano Rivera.

“I don’t look at it as a failure, but that was best chance with Seattle," Piniella said. "We just didn’t get it done. Those kids played their hearts out. You have to remember, we’d traded Griffey away, Alex Rodriguez went free agent and Randy Johnson had been traded the year before. If I had Randy Johnson in ’01, that would have made a heck of a series.”

Back to hockey.

“Cooper is a hell of a coach,” Piniella said. “I like his demeanor. You can tell he has the respect of the team. He knows his situation better than me.”

“It takes something out of you, there’s no doubt about it. You’ve got to be on top of it, day in and day out. The media lets you know it. In baseball, it’s a lot more pronounced, because it’s every day. At least they get a break between games.”

“You can’t rest your team all the time, either. What happens is you get out of sync, out of rhythm. When you get in the postseason, that’s not a time to get into a little slump. Coach Cooper is going to come up with the right decision. One thing about the postseason, you can’t go in flat, you have to go in on an edge. Cooper doesn’t need advice from anybody.”

Take it slow anyway.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly

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