The surroundings look vaguely familiar. The twists and the turns are still the same. You can still see the possibilities in the distance. It has been a while, but yes, the Lightning has been here before.
On the other hand, here's a question about the road to the NHL playoffs.
Has the neighborhood always been this noisy?
Say this for the Lightning. As a team, it is having a nice, quiet little season. As a franchise, however, it is loud to the point of being annoying. And at this point, the fun is being consumed by the dysfunction.
In the background, you can hear the sound of a cash register working double-time. Evidently, Jeff Vinik's purchase of the team is going so slowly because Gary Bettman has such trouble making change. Then there is the sound of general manager Brian Lawton sharpening his chain saw, just in case he decides he wants to evaluate other coaches on the staff. In the distance, you can hear the sound of Oren Koules and Len Barrie as they rub their last two loonies together. (Although to tell the truth, both of the loonies belong to Koules. Barrie borrowed one. Pretty much, that sums up their partnership.)
At any moment, you half expect the Lightning players to gather in the middle of the ice, look up at the executive offices and shout, "Would you guys please shut up! We're trying to make the playoffs down here!"
It's a shame, isn't it? After years of being stuck in the cellar, the team has finally given itself a chance down the stretch, and no one seems to have noticed because of the silliness of the executives. For the Lighting players, it's a little like trying to perform brain surgery in the middle of a fireworks show.
Don't the players deserve better than this? After two years in the muck, don't the customers?
Considering where they have been, this Lightning season should bring a smile to your face. With 21 games to play, Tampa Bay is two games over .500 and one point out of the playoff race. That's not exactly greatness, but when you remember that the Lightning was nine games below .500 this time last year (16 points out of the final playoff spot) and six games below .500 the previous year (15 points out of the final playoff spot), it's not bad.
Here's what Lightning fans ought to be talking about. They ought to be talking about how many points are obtainable in the next 21 games. They ought to be talking about who might be available by Wednesday's trading deadline. They ought to be talking about which goaltender is more likely to get hot down the stretch, and whether a second line is too much to ask for, and whether the defense will hold up.
Hockey talk, in other words.
So how do players block it all out and focus on the task at hand? How do they ignore the noise overhead and focus on the finish line in front of them?
"Do we talk about it? Absolutely," Marty St. Louis said. "But when it's game night and they drop the puck, we're playing hockey."
For an athlete, for any athlete, focus is one of the overlooked abilities of an elite player. Lightning coach Rick Tocchet suggests it's one of the top three attributes an athlete can have.
"When things go bad, you can't let your mind wander," Tocchet said. "You have to get it back as quickly as possible. Take Tom Brady. His focus can snap back in a single play. I think you can use any sport. Some guys can lose focus for weeks, for days.
"I always use the analogy of a horse in a horse race. They have their blinders on, and all they can see is the finish line. They don't see people cheering; they don't see birds flying. That's the mentality we're trying here. Bad calls. Bad ice. The travel is bad. Arguments in the locker room. Anything."
Presumably, "anything" seems to include Koules and Barrie trying to arm-wrestle for the team. It includes a general manager firing an assistant coach without the input of the head coach. (And I still smile when I think what would have happened if John Tortorella were still the coach around here. Does anyone else think fans would have to wear radiation suits for the next 40 seasons?) It includes Bettman — the guy who hand-picked Koules, remember? — who could at least fast-track the Vinik sale.
Instead, the Lightning has to block out the sound of its own executives. Some nights, that's tougher than playing Washington or New Jersey.
"My job is to give my players no excuses," Tocchet said. "If you have a bad game, it's because you had a bad game. If I coach a bad game, it's on me."
Agreed. There are no excuses, and in the end, no one is going to accept "distracted" as an excuse.
Still, when a team finally earns itself a chance as the season heads into the stretch run, you would think the executives could at least get out of the way.